He hummed ‘Yellow River,’ took his lunchbox from the fridge and left them to talk about him. Moffatt’s shadow watched him cross the car park. He caught his coat in the car door, but left it snagged. He bit into his cheese and pickle sarnie. The wind got up scattering brittle leaves across the tennis courts, or what was left of them. In the 1960s an architect described as ‘visionary’ had grand ideas for Sir Grenville’s. The school was built out of fibreglass panels, so many of the classrooms faced south and teachers and pupils were blinded and baked like tomato plants through the summer. In winter they shivered, despite the scalding proximity of radiator pipes. Their writing hands retreated into cuffs and their heads ducked turtle-like into chewed pullovers.
In the long, unkempt meadows to the north of the school an amphitheatre was built to stage open-air Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. The architect had clearly never visited Sir Grenville’s. The open-air theatre had never been used. It was buried in leaf mulch, crumpled cans and multipack crisps. There were empty cider cans, rumpled used condoms and scorched strips of silver foil.
The sports field was wedged between the science block and a steep ridge of land that bordered the common. Brittle, gnarled hawthorns ran along the crest of the ridge. They acted like a giant rubbish spike, snagging crisp packets, tarpaulins, pizza leaflets and burger cartons. Beyond the hedge thick cloying mud gave way to an ancient marl pit. A rusting washing machine and a sofa bursting mushrooms of pale foam lay in the swampy basin. Bundles of free newspapers were slowly turning to soggy pulp.
Mr Hartshorne had changed into his football boots and was already regretting it. Sir Grenville’s pitch had been left pitted and rutted by sliding tackles and hoofed clearances. The ground had frosted hard so the pitch resembled a wedding cake. His plastic studs skidded and slid, so Mr Hartshorne was using the corner flags like a skier.
‘We can’t play on this,’ he said. ‘There’ll be no football today.’
Gary Mallet ignored him, laying out orange and yellow cones for the other boys to dribble around. Mr Hartshorne’s cheeks were pinked with frost. His nose dripped. He zipped his tracksuit up to his neck and told Gary to gather up the cones and bibs. Gary groaned.
‘We’re meant to be playing a game.’
‘No chance,’ Mr Hartshorne said. ‘Someone will break a leg.’
‘Oh, but Sir,’ Gary moaned. ‘Thursday’s the next round of the cup.’
‘Tell that to social services when one of you lot cops a broken ankle.’
Gary kicked at a cone sending it slicing through the air. Mr Hartshorne spotted Scott Boon and Darren Pick grinning and nudging each other. They’d forgotten their kit in the hope they’d miss games. With strained patience Mr Hartshorne had led them to the spare kit cupboard. They weren’t spares, of course, rather unclaimed kit; sports gear the owners were too embarrassed or unwilling to collect.
In the cupboard where the cleaners kept their mops and buckets and bleaches there was a broken metal cabinet with a door that wouldn’t close. Inside the cupboard there was a Mazola cooking oil box packed with sweaty football socks, moth-eaten jerseys, shorts with perished linings and mouldy bibs. The stale whiff was unmistakable. Like creosote or gloss paint Mr Hartshorne would know it anywhere. He had a giant pair of tweezers for grabbing the mangiest kit.
‘You’ve got two minutes,’ Mr Hartshorne told them. ‘Now get changed.’
He tapped his Casio, checked his whistle was functioning with two sharp toots. He was admiring the workmanship, glancing at his reflection in the metal.
‘I’m not wearing this,’ Scott Boon said. His fingertips shied away from a pair of grubby emerald green football socks. So much mud was spattered on the ankles and shins it could’ve been scraped off with a bread knife.
‘So bring your own kit.’
‘I’m not wearing this.’ Scott sniffed the shorts at arm’s length. ‘They’re disgusting.’
Mr Hartshorne stood with his hands on his hips. Scott dropped the shorts back in the box.
‘I’m not wearing them.’
‘Well you’ll have to run about naked, won’t you Scott?’
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