First Chapter: Crow Boy by Philip Caveney

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Tom stood in the pouring rain with the other kids from his class and waited for the coach. It was April, but felt cold enough for December. His classmates, boys and girls alike, were bundled up in heavy coats and parkas; they’d known what to expect. Tom had only his maroon blazer, which was already wet through.

It was hard not to feel sorry for himself. He hated Edinburgh, he hated his new school and he hated his classmates. And, what was worse, they hated him.

Oh, he could see that under different circumstances, Edinburgh would be a really cool place to visit. But he was here against his will. Only a week ago, he’d been in Manchester, hanging out with his friends, going to the movies, playing computer games, all the usual stuff. Any excuse not to spend too much time at home. He’d known for a long time that something was wrong between his parents; he’d suffered their long, deep silences, the sudden arguments that blew up out of nowhere but he’d chosen to stay out of it, telling himself that they were adults; they were supposed to know what they were doing . . .

And then, one Friday, he strolled out of school, looking forward to the weekend, and his Mum was waiting for him, sitting in the passenger seat of a car he’d never seen before, a sleek black Alfa Romeo. There was this guy at the wheel of the car, a thickset man with a scrubby beard and receding hair. Mum wound down the window and said, “Hi, Tom, get in.”

So he climbed into the back seat, bewildered, and Mum gestured at the driver and said, ‘This is Hamish,’ like it was supposed to mean something. Then Hamish gunned the engine and they set off.

“Where we going?” Tom asked apprehensively.

“Scotland,” she said, breezily, like she’d just announced they were nipping down the shops. “Edinburgh. We’re going to have a bit of a holiday.”

“For the weekend, you mean?”

“Umm . . . maybe a bit longer.”

“But . . . it’s the middle of term,” he reminded her.

“Don’t worry about that. I think you’re entitled to a few days off every now and then.”

But of course, it was more than that. On the long . . . the very long journey North, Mum gradually revealed more and more about what was going on. She and Dad hadn’t been getting on for a long time, now. They’d drifted apart. She’d met Hamish through work, three months back. He was a rep, a kind of travelling salesman for a company that made shower fittings. He was based in Edinburgh, a really cool city. She kept saying that last bit as though trying to convince Tom that what they were doing was a good idea. Or maybe she was just trying to convince herself.

Anyway, she went on, she and Hamish were just made for each other; they were on the same wavelength. They had so many interests in common. Hamish liked dancing and Dad would never do anything like that, he’d always been so reserved. Mum and Hamish liked the same music, the same films, the same holiday destinations . . .

Tom sat in the back seat and felt an awful sinking feeling deep inside, as he realised what she was really telling him. They were leaving Dad. They were leaving Manchester. He knew that he should be shouting about this, telling them to stop the car and let him out, but he was in shock and he could only sit there and listen while his mother prattled on. Hamish had this really fabulous house in a ‘sought-after’ part of Edinburgh, she told him. He was a widower, his wife had died a couple of years ago and, when he’d met Mum, something had just clicked between them; something incredible, something magical.

“It was like, I don’t know, fate or something?” said Mum. She sounded like some love-struck teenager, not like a married woman of thirty-eight. “We just looked at each other across the room and it was like it was all meant to be, you know what I mean? I thought to myself, Mary, you only get the one chance at happiness and you need to do something about this now, or spend the rest of your life regretting it.”

Through all this, Hamish just sat at the wheel, staring at the road ahead, his eyes narrowed down to slits against the sunlight, an unpleasant smirk on his potato-like face. Occasionally, he lifted one hand from the steering wheel and placed it on Mum’s hand and Tom noticed a crude tattoo on his bare arm which read Scotland Forever. He didn’t look anything like Dad, Tom thought. He looked like an oik, a loser. But Mum just kept on about how wonderful he was, how good he was with kids (he’d raised two of his own; they were grown now, and both of them had responsible jobs), he was a football fan and he’d run a couple of marathons for charity.

Tom finally pulled himself together enough to throw in a couple of objections. What about Mum’s job at the catalogue company? What about school?

“Oh, I can walk into another job any time. You know I’ve always hated working for the catalogue, and as for school, there’s a really good comprehensive just a stone’s throw from Hamish’s house in Fairmilehead, both of his kids went there, we can get you in, no problem! Edinburgh’s a fantastic place, it has a castle, seaside, a mountain . . . oh, and the festival every summer! All that stand-up comedy, you’ll love that! And listen, you can tell this was meant to be because the school has the same maroon blazers you wear at St Thomas’s; all I’ll need to do is sew on a new badge!”

“What about my friends?” he pleaded, but she hadn’t faltered.

“You’ll soon make new ones,” she told him. “An easy-going lad like you, it’ll only take you a few days . . .”

But of course the reality had been so different.From the moment he’d walked into his first class and Mr McKenzie, his form teacher, had introduced him as ‘the new arrival,’ he’d been a marked man. The other kids spent all their time whispering about him, the ‘The Manky,’ a blow-in, laughing every time he opened his mouth and spoke in his flat Mancunian accent, imitating him when he was almost but not quite out of earshot. He felt like telling them that he hadn’t asked to be here, that he hadn’t had any say in the matter, but what difference would that have made? He wasn’t welcome, simple as that.

And neither did he feel welcome at home. Hamish’s ‘cool’ house had turned out to be a large semi on an anonymous side street of Fairmilehead. It had probably been nice enough once but, after three years of Hamish living there alone, it was looking decidedly scruffy. Whenever Tom was there with Mum and Hamish, he felt as though he was in the way, that they wanted to be alone, so he spent most of his time in his bedroom, the one that had previously belonged to Hamish’s eldest son. With its Hibernian F.C. wallpaper and yellowing posters of grinning footballers, it looked as though nobody had been in there for years.

“We’ll soon get this decorated more to your taste,” Hamish assured him when he and Mum had first taken him to look at the room. And then he reached out a big hand and tousled Tom’s hair. “I expect you’re a United fan, eh?”

Tom had no interest in football whatsoever, and he certainly didn’t like Hamish touching him, but he said nothing, just shrugged his shoulders.

“We’ll get you a computer,” Mum had added and Hamish had given her an odd look, a kind of a pursed-lip scowl, as if to say ‘we’ll have to see about that.’ When they’d left him to ‘make himself at home,’ Tom had lain down on the bed and curled himself up into a foetal position, feeling that he wanted to cry, but not allowing himself the comfort of it.

And now, here he was, three weeks later, and he was going on a school trip to something or somewhere called Mary King’s Close. When he’d brought the letter home from school, Mum had been keen for Tom to go but Hamish had said that he’d been to it, it was a con, just a trudge along some dirty old streets and not worth the money the school was asking. Mum still hadn’t managed to ‘walk into’ that new job she’d mentioned and Hamish seemed to be watching the pennies. Mum had argued that Tom needed to get out a bit, it would help him make friends, and Hamish said that visiting some old ruin wasn’t going to help the kid do that, he needed to stand up for himself a bit more. Right then and there, the couple who were ‘so right for each other’ had proceeded to have their first row. Tom thought about telling them that he didn’t care whether he went or not, but they seemed to have forgotten he was there so he slunk off to his room and left them to it.

Mum must have prevailed though, because the money had been paid and now here was the coach, lurching out of the pouring rain like a giant caterpillar. It came to a halt with a loud hiss of air brakes. Then everyone was piling aboard, pushing and shoving to be first. Tom waited till everyone else was on and then he climbed the steps and trudged along the aisle, until he found a seat to himself, as far away as possible from the most vocal of his tormentors, a kid called Stuart Gillies, a big overweight thug of a lad with spiky blonde hair, who took great delight in referring to Tom as ‘The Manky.’ Gillies was big enough and hard enough to have a small following of admirers who would do just about anything to be in his gang. If slagging off Tom was the price of admission, they were more than willing to join in.

As Tom slid into his seat, he heard Gillies’ voice announcing that, “The Manky looks like a drowned rat this morning.” This caused some laughter and then another voice, a girl called Jenny, added that it was a pity the Manky’s Ma couldn’t afford to buy him a coat. “Oh, they don’t wear coats in Manchester,” Gillies assured her. “Too cool for that.” He adopted a poor Mancunian accent. “They all think they’re Liam bleedin’ Gallagher!”

Tom tried to ignore him and stared fixedly out of the window at the rain-lashed street. A tramp in a frayed overcoat was pushing a supermarket trolley piled with his tattered belongings along the pavement, a few wet strands of grey hair plastered to his head. Somehow, he was managing to smoke a roll up, the thin stream of smoke rising between the daggers of rain. Some of the kids at the back of the coach started banging on the window and shouting to him. He looked up and flicked a casual V in their direction with two nicotine-stained fingers.

Mr McKenzie pulled his gangling figure aboard and stood at the front of the coach, doing a quick headcount. He was wearing a camel-coloured duffel coat which somehow made him look like an extra from a movie about World War 2. Then he made an announcement.

“I’d just like to remind everyone that you’re representing your school today and we’d like you to act with the necessary decorum.”

This was met with a barrage of groans, laughs and jeers, but he soldiered gamely on.

“Also, don’t forget that this is an educational trip, not a holiday. You will each be asked to submit an essay about the Plague of 1645, so I would advise you all to listen attentively to everything you hear today.”

Another long groan. Mr McKenzie gestured to the driver and took a seat at the front of the coach. It pulled away with another hiss of hydraulics and started along the street. Rain streaked diagonally across the window. Tom tried to concentrate his attention on the view but couldn’t quite manage to shut out the voices coming from the back of the coach.

“I heard the Manky’s mother did a runner on her old man,” said a voice.

“Aye,” agreed Gillies. “Left him high and dry in Mankyland. Fancied a bit of local talent instead.”

“She’s shacked up with Hamish McPherson,” said Jenny. “I heard my Ma telling her friend.”

“Hamish McPherson. Jesus! She likes to live dangerously. Hamish McPherson with the . . .” The voice lowered to a whisper towards the end of the sentence so Tom couldn’t hear what was said, but the derisive laughter at the end suggested that it had been fairly crude.

“Keep it down at the back!” shouted Mr McKenzie and the laughter faded. “Stuart, don’t let me have to tell you again.”

Tom sighed. He wondered what his friends were doing now. In Manchester, he’d have been joining in with the laughter and some other kid would have been the butt of the joke, some spod that everybody made fun of. Here, he was the outsider and it wasn’t a nice place to be.

He reached into his pocket and took out his mobile, keeping it well out of sight because school rules didn’t allow pupils to have them. It was Pay As You Go, and he was currently out of credit. Mum, sensing perhaps that he would be phoning his dad, had refused point blank to fund the habit, and he’d had to resort to using his dinner money but that only went so far.

The phone had been his lifeline over the past few weeks: he’d texted all his mates back in Manchester, telling them of his woes and, at first, they’d replied to him, expressing their concerns and making vague plans to come up there and rescue him. But, as time went on, they texted less often and now seemed to have given up on him completely. But he’d been texting his dad too and Dad had been texting him back, several times a day and had even phoned him a couple of times.

Dad claimed to have had no inkling about Mum’s affair; the first he had known of it was when he got back from work and found the house empty and a letter on the mantelpiece. He had now put the matter in the hands of his solicitors (whatever that meant) and they were trying to find a way that Dad and Tom could be allowed to spend some time together – but the distances involved meant it could take quite a while to do that. In the meantime, Tom was to ‘keep his chin up’ and work hard at his new school, try to fit in as best he could. The last text Tom had received was an odd one and made him think that his Dad must have been drinking when he wrote it.

 

Tom. Please remember I will always love you. Dad.

 

As far as Tom could remember, it was the first time his dad had ever said those words to him.

He sighed and, determined to take his mind off his troubles, he loaded up Timeslyp on his phone, a game he’d been playing a lot lately. In it, the hero, John Kane, a lean craggy man dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and a long leather coat, spent all his time running along endless corridors, dodging attacks from cloaked and masked assassins. They came out of the most unexpected places, leaping through paintings on the wall, oozing up from the bare floorboards beneath Kane’s feet, dropping through the ceiling onto his back. He escaped them by performing a series of athletic leaps and somersaults to avoid the razor-sharp sickles they carried. Every so often, Kane would reach a doorway, a portal into another level and, whenever he burst through one of them, he would find himself in an alternate reality, where everything was slightly different and where the rules learned on the previous level no longer applied. It was weirdly addictive. Tom was currently on level six but couldn’t quite seem to reach the next doorway. Every time he got close to it, he would be felled by a couple of assassins who jumped out of the shadows, hell bent on his destruction.

He was so engrossed in the game that it was a complete surprise when the coach, with a great hissing of air brakes, pulled to a halt on the High Street and Mr McKenzie announced that it was time to get off. Tom abandoned the game, noting as he did so that the phone’s battery was half gone.

“Great,” he muttered. He shoved the phone into his damp blazer pocket and waited for the other kids to leave the coach before tagging reluctantly along behind them.

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