I open the front door, fling my bag in the hallway and go into the sitting-room. She's waiting there expectantly, like she always is.
“Well. How d'ya get on?”
I smile, savouring the moment.
“A hat-trick Nan,” I say with a grin.
“Ooh Tommy,” she squeals as she clasps her hands together in glee.
“I got an assist too,” I add, eager to maximise her delight.
“An assist?” she says, “What's an assist?”
“It's when you set someone else up to score a goal Nan.”
“Oh I like that,” she smiles. “Unselfish.”
But here's the thing, I didn't get a hat-trick or anything even like one. Instead I just wandered up and down the sideline like I do every week. At one point I thought Dixie was beckoning for me and I set off at a gallop towards the dug-out - but t'was one of the other lads he was looking for. He'd never take a risk on me in a game like tonight's; a top of the table clash against our fiercest rivals. I usually only got a run-out if we were winning comfortably or losing horribly, no risk situations with nothing at stake. The rest of the lads probably wonder why I even bother turning up, and sometimes I wonder it meself. I guess I just want to feel part of something.
You might think that telling lies to my Nan is a bad thing, but it's not really. All I'm doing is putting a little sunshine into her life. If I were to tell her the truth; failing miserably in school, not many friends, little success with the girls and a quite terrible footballer it would crush her, and neither of us want that.
I've been living with my Nan since I was five. I woke up one morning and they'd all gone. My mother, her boyfriend and the new baby. I didn't know they'd gone forever at the time so I just turned on the TV and waited for them to come back. When it started to get dark I got the first inkling that something might be up. So I went in next door to Mrs McManus and asked her if she'd make me a sandwich. Next thing I know I'm sitting by a big, lovely fire with the McManuses eating chocolate digestives and watching Coronation Street. I wondered if I lived with them now. But then my Nanny came and took me to her house.
Nanny said I'd be staying with her for a few weeks while Mammy was on holidays. Why didn't she bring me, I asked. Where's she gone? Will she bring me back a present? I was little put out that she hadn't brought me but sure staying at Nanny's was a holiday in itself! Meself and me Nan got on great and she always let me stay up past my bedtime. She had nice things to eat too, not like our house where you were lucky if you got a mangy custard cream with your tea.
As much as I loved it at Nanny's I still couldn't wait for my Mammy to return. I missed my own room and my own bed, I missed all my toys and I even missed my shitty little brother. But most of all I missed my Mammy. She sometimes gave out to me and made me cry but I loved her. But after two weeks had passed with no sign of her return I began to get a little worried. I came home from school every day eagerly expecting to find her sitting at the kitchen table with Nanny, but she was never there. I took to gazing out the window watching out for his car but it never came. Eventually I stopped looking out that window, she wasn't coming back. It was just me and my Nanny now.
“Tommy! Tommy! Wake up! You'll be late for school!”
I awake with a start. School. Oh no. But instead of the early morning gloom flooding in through the curtains my room remained in pitch darkness. I immediately look to the fluorescent alarm clock on my bedside locker; 03:23. Fuck sake Nan.
“It's not time for school yet Nan,” I call out, “go back to bed.”
I listen out for a response but none arrives. All is silent for a moment until I hear the shuffle of Nan's slippers as she crosses the landing back to her own room. I sigh deeply and sink back in to my pillow. My last thought before drifting back to sleep is that today is Saturday.
Later that morning, having had a thoroughly good lie-in, I descend the stairs for what I hope will be my customary Saturday morning fry-up. But instead of standing, stationed by the pan I find my Nan in the back garden. She's on her hands and knees and is furiously digging into the earth with a trowel. This is odd for two reasons; my Nan has never taken the slightest interest in gardening for as long as I've known her, and it's pissing rain upon her silky thin white hair.
“What ya doing Nan?” I enquire.
She looks up at me startled by my words. For a second or two there is no hint of recognition, her face is a total blank as she struggles to ascertain my identity. But then things click seamlessly into gear and she's all smiles and warmth.
“Ah Tommy my love, how was school?”
“No school today Nan, it's Saturday.”
“Ah of course Saturday,” she says propping herself up on one knee, “best get your fry on.”
I help her to her feet and we head into the kitchen together.
“What were you doing in the garden Nan?” I ask as I dry her down with a towel.
“Oh your Granddad asked me to do a bit of work for him so I thought I should get started.”
“Okay Nan, but maybe leave it 'til a drier day eh?”
“Hmmph,” she snorts, “you know what your Granddad is like, everything has to be done yesterday, rain or no rain!”
I watch her potter around the little kitchen and, not for the first time, wonder how she'd cope if anything happened to me. My Granddad Joe died four years ago and since then her dementia has got gradually worse. If anyone found out she was in this state it'd be a nursing home for her and God knows where for me. We've managed up to now, but after her last mid-afternoon wander which concluded in a bookies four miles from here I've been forced to lock her in when I go to school.
I collect her pension every Friday and I've set up direct debits for all the bills, but I know it's only a matter of time until someone finds out. A 15-year old boy and a senile old woman; it's a social workers dream. I've resolved to leave school and get a job. The plan is to earn enough money to get Nan some proper home care. But finding work is not going to be easy. This isn't the dark ages where kids my age are sent to work as if they're men, mores the pity. And even if I do get a job it's unlikely I'll get one in this small village. I'll probably have to go further afield and where will that leave her? A nursing home that's where. And I've seen how they treat people in those places. No way am I subjecting my Nan to that.
My Nan might be as mad as a box of frogs but she's not stupid. If she finds out that I'm leaving school it'll break her heart. But if I were to leave school for a once in a lifetime opportunity, a shot at the big time, then she might think differently. And so it is that after another ninety minutes spent standing in the cold I return with some exciting news.
“I think there might have been some scouts at the game today Nan.”
“Scouts? Like them little boys who tie knots?”
I suppress a giggle, “No Nan, football scouts. They're talent spotters who travel around the country looking for young players.”
Her eyes light up, she doesn't even need to ask the question.
“Yes Nan, I think they were there to watch me.”
“Oh Jesus Tommy,” is all she can muster.
“I think some of them might have come from England.”
She comes to me and cups my face in her hands, “If only your mother could see you now Tommy eh? Scouts from England! My God.”
I flinch at the mention of my mother, I don't even like to acknowledge her existence.
“But Nan, here's the thing....”
She takes her hands away and looks at me earnestly. “What's the thing Tommy, what's the thing?”
“If these scouts think I'm good enough.....I might have to move to England....to live.”
“To England Tommy? To live?”
The enormity of the situation hits her and she fumbles her way to the armchair. I sit beside her and take her hand in mine. “I'd be earning good money Nan, enough to send some back here. I could get you some home help.”
She flashes me an indignant scowl, “Home help? I don't need home help, I can perfectly manage on my own thank you very much.”
I sigh in resignation, this isn't going to be easy. Then, as if to underline my point, she gets up and primly announces, “Now if you don't mind I'm off out to the pictures with that lovely boy I met last week.” And with that she's away out the front door to go a'courting with some distant memory from her past.
“How old did you say you were son?”
The foreman eyes me suspiciously, I've always been big for my age but I'm also cursed with maddeningly cherubic features.
“Nineteen,” I reply in the gruffest tone I can manage.
“Hmm,” he looks down at my application form and then back at me again. “And if I were to ring these references they'd all verify that they would?”
“They would,” I nod assertively.
He leans forward in his chair, “Listen kid, we both know you're not nineteen, I'd give ya seventeen at best but if you're willing to work off the books then I'm willing to take you on.”
I flush with joy, I can hardly believe it, a job, a real job. I don't even know what working “off the books” means but it can't be all that different to working on the books.
“Brilliant,” I say, “when can I start?”
He rises from his chair and escorts me to the door, “Be here Monday morning, seven o'clock sharp, and wear some working boots, no poxy trainers allowed here.”
I walk through what is soon to be my workplace and out the large factory gates; I entered a boy but I'm leaving a man.
With an hour to spare until my bus home I head to the library to complete some important paperwork: a letter certifying that the mighty Manchester United wish to acquire my services as a professional footballer. I procure a PC and set about penning my masterpiece. 'Dear Mrs Devlin, It is with great pleasure that we contact you today. We have been watching your grandson Thomas for some time now and with your permission we would like to make him a part of our esteemed football club. Our scout called Thomas “one of the finest talents I've ever seen” and the entire staff here are very excited at the prospect of his arrival. As he is so young it is unlikely he will feature in the first team just yet but given his abilities it surely won't be long before he is knocking on the manager's door...'
I pause and read back over it, I try and imagine Nan's reaction as she fetches her jam jar glasses and slowly peruses the document. How her eyes will slowly widen with each sentence, until, at it's completion, she'll beam with delight and hug me 'til it hurts. Is it worth it? You bet it is. I add the official club crest, and some other administrative info which is sure to impress her, and I'm finished. I collect the print-out and hurry to the bus station.
When I arrive home I find Nan in floods of tears. She's sat on the edge of her bed surrounded by old photos, they're littered everywhere: all over the floor, on the bed beside her, boxes of them some unopened others overflowing, it's a mess.
“Aw Nan,” I say, “you been reminiscing again?”
She looks at me, all teary and sad, “He was just a little boy, not even four years old,” she says with a gasp. I sit down beside her, put my arm around her shoulders and press her head to my chest. The little boy in question is my uncle Frankie who died from polio sometime in the 1960s, he was Nan's only other child apart from my Mam. I've never asked her why she didn't have any more children because I already know the answer, the trauma of Frankie's passing sucked the life right out of her and she was neither willing nor able to countenance the arrival of another baby. Sometimes when her Alzheimer's is really bad she'll mistake other people's children for Frankie and scare the life out of both parent and child by grabbing the little mite and vowing never to let another doctor within ten feet of her “poor Frankie.”
Her plaintive moaning eventually dies down and I gently extricate myself from her. “Nan? I've got some good news.”
She gets up and take a tissue from the box on her dresser, blows her nose and returns back to me.
“What is it Tommy,” she says the spark returning to her eyes.
“Remember those scouts Nan?”
“Yes, the scouts, talent-spotters who roam the country looking for young players.”
“That's right Nan.”
“What about them Tom?”
“They've been in touch Nan,” I say as I reach for the letter in my pocket. I've purchased an envelope in the stationery shop and even gone as far as affixing a stamp for extra authenticity.
“Here, read this,” I say as I pass it to her.
“Oh God, where are my glasses,” she says as she scans the room hopelessly, she moves to get up but I stop her short, “I have them here Nan, they were downstairs. Now go on, read.”
She needs no further invitation and I watch in silence as she digests this life-affirming news. She takes an age to read it and then pauses briefly before starting again, I sit there patiently waiting for her response. I want to see that smile and I want to get that hug. After several more reads and re-reads she sets the letter down among all the photos of poor, tragic Frankie. She's crying again, but this time the tears are different, they're tears of joy. She pulls me to her and we cling to one another as if our lives depended on it.
I lay flat out on my bed exhausted from the day's work. This being a man malarkey isn't all it's cracked up to be. But it's serving it's purpose and I can't ask for any more than that. I made nearly five-hundred Euro this week, half of which has gone toward home help for my Nan. It feels good to know I'm looking after her. All those hours spent humping animal carcasses around the factory are worth it if it means she's happy. But I know something that will make her even happier; a call from her talented grandson, all the way from Manchester. I clear my throat and try to imagine myself in a digs amidst the shadow of Old Trafford, instead of a dingy bedsit not forty miles from home.
“Hello Mrs Devlin speaking”
“Ooh Hellooo,” she coos, she does this every time I call her even though she hasn't a clue it's me on the other end of the phone.
“It's me Tommy,” there's a pause as she tries to figure out who she knows called Tommy, “your grandson.”
“Ahh Tommy my pet, how are you getting on? Are they treating you well? Are you eating okay?”
“I am Nan I'm fine,” I reply as my stomach grumbles.
“And how's the football? Any more assists?”
I envisage her grinning away on the other end of the phone.
“I played my first game the other day Nan, for the youth team,” I say as I pick at some raw meat embedded in my boot.
“A hat-trick Nan, a hat-trick”
Amid the frenzied hysteria I can make out but a few words, “so proud”, “your uncle Frankie”, “a real Devlin” and “Oh Tommy”.
Mrs Annie Devlin sits by the fire waiting for the woman to bring in her tea. She better make it right, she thinks, my Tommy always made it right. The woman returns with her tea and by golly it might just be the finest cuppa ever made, fair played to her. In spite of herself Annie feels her attitude towards the home helper soften. She turns to her conspiratorially, “See that picture on the mantle?” she says pointing to one of her Grandson Tommy.
“This one Mrs Devlin?” says the woman as she beckons to the smiling youngster in the football kit.
“Yes, that's my Grandson Tommy.”
“Aw Mrs Devlin he looks lovely”
“He is lovely, and you know what else?”
“Yes Mrs Devlin?”
“He plays for Manchester United”
“Manchester United?”replies the woman, “Wow.”
“You must be very proud of him.”
“I am," says Annie Devlin, "more proud than you could ever imagine.”