A ludicrous ‘What If’
“Thompson!” Hollered my incredibly old geography teacher. “Go to the headmaster’s office immediately. I’m sick to the back teeth of you flaunting the school uniform rules day after day.”
“But Sir, I keep -”
“Don’t answer me back, boy. Just do as you’re told for once without any arguments, will yout?”
The long walk to Mr. Balfour’s office was made even longer by my tardiness. I knew there was no point in rushing there only to be given the same response I always get from him, and it was on the way that I passed Bas in the corridor. Bas is a mate of mine…well, not so much a mate as he only likes me because of what I can do.
“Tommy, off to see Balfour again?” He snorted out his sense of derision and I wasn’t sure whether it was aimed at me or Mr Carrigan’s decision to send me yet again.
“Yeah! You know how it is. Are we still on for tonight?”
“Hell yeah! You gotta be there mate.” And with that he scarpered down the corridor just as Mrs Kinsella rounded the corner.
“Thompson!” As abrupt as she ever was, which was a shame because I really enjoyed her lessons.
“Yes Ma’am!” I answered awaiting the expected dressing-down.
“Why are you not in your lessons? I’m sure I heard the bell go.”
“Sorry Ma’am, but I’m on my way to see the headmaster.”
She had a puzzled look on her face. “Who sent you this time?” She cocked her head as she waited for my reply.
‘Then what are you doing in this corridor?’ I said to myself fractions of a second before she uttered the same.
“You’re taking the long way intentionally, aren’t you?” She stood with her hands on her hips looking no at all as stern as she was intending.
“Yes Ma’am.” I replied quietly. I knew there was no point in bluffing her; there were some foolish teachers here, but she wasn’t one of them.
“It’s the trousers again, isn’t it?” I couldn’t believe it but there was the slightest of smiles on her face. “Don’t let him get to you. He’s just like that. Now run along…only don’t run of course, because that WILL get you into trouble with Mr Balfour. You need to save that particular skill for the pitch.”
“Yes Ma’am.” I replied as I made my way, slightly quicker, for my daily meeting with the headmaster. I really didn’t mind them, you know. I mean, it’s not as if I hate playing football, and his son, Basil, is the team Captain. Rumour has it that since I’ve joined the team there’s a strong chance we’ll win the inter-school cup.
I knock on the heavy oak door and a large, booming voice resounds from within.
“Come in Mr Thompson. I’ve been expecting you.”
“Good morning Sir!” I close the door behind me. “Do we really have to do this every day Sir? Can’t you just tell Mr Carrigan that I’m permitted to wear non uniform trousers because of…well you know.”
“Come now, Thompson, we can’t show favouritism for you whilst chastising another for a similar digression, can we? Mr Balfour still spoke as if I was outside his office. His voice was both loud yet gentle. Soft in a way. And not at all threatening to me although some of the other boys would claim to hear demons during their Balfour bashings, as they were known around the school.
“But Mr Balfour Sir, it’s not as if I go out of my way to break the school rules is it?” The head walked to his desk and as he turned to sit in the sturdy chair he had occupied as Headmaster for almost forty years his black gown billowed out and gave him an even larger appearance than his stout body displayed. He had a somewhat puzzled expression on his face yet said nothing as he pointed to the less substantial chair on my side of the enormous desk.
“Well sit down boy. We don’t have all day and I need to talk with you about the cup.”
At just fourteen I was surprised when I often found myself having conversations with Mr Balfour when surely everybody else’s visits to this giant of a man were far less genial.
“The cup, Sir?” I asked. I watched as he leaned back in his chair and raised his arms, putting his hands behind his head.
“The cup, boy. The cup.” He beamed. “It’s got to be ours for the taking this year. I know we shouldn’t put our eggs in one basket, but you lad,” His shoulders began to bounce up and down he tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress his laughter. “You lad, are one heck of an egg to have.”
I was enjoying the praise from this man but could feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders and it matched the burden that the inevitable, impending revelation was bound to bring.
“So tell me…how do you do it?” He was almost gushing. “NO! Don’t tell me. It’ll jinx the whole thing, and we have just one more game to play to get through to the final.” I stared, waiting for the obvious continuation. “Oh bother and damn it! I have to know. How do you do it? I’ve never seen such lightning speed combined with phenomenal ball control. You are very special. How do you do it, boy?”
My time for enjoyment had come to an end and I felt my shoulders drop. Fingers idly picked at an errant thread that hung from my non-regulation, gray trousers.
“I have three legs, Sir.”
Mister Balfour jumped up from his seat and snatched a dark-framed photograph from the oak bookshelves that lined the back of his office,
“Do you know this school has won the cup before? Did I tell you that? I must have done. Ever since you came to this school, and your obvious talent became evident, the spectre of us once again lifting the cup has been first and foremost in everybody’s mind. And now we find ourselves on the cusp of greatness again, and I know it’s a team game, and every player, my son included will share in the glory, but it’s you boy…you and your God-given talent that is —”
I heard his pause and forced myself to look up. His mouth was as wide open as his eyes. He stood there, holding the long-faded photograph, and stared at me. I said nothing. I had nothing to say that would go any way to assuage the confusion on his face.
“You…” His forehead began to furrow but he didn’t look away from my face although I could all but feel his tension. “You…”
“Have…three legs, Sir.” I knew I would need to break our stare and look down at my feet. No sooner had I done so than it was as if I’d given this enormous figure of total authority the permission to look and I glanced back up and watched as his gaze landed on my legs.
I heard him breath in as my fingers once again pulled idly at the short thread sticking out from the seam of my middle leg. My mother always did her best for me, but her sewing led much to be desired. I focused on this piece of cotton and tugged at it as I realised Mister Balfour had stopped breathing.
His breath burst out and he gasped the much-needed fresh air whilst dropping the photograph. I watched the corner of the frame hit the carpet and the thin glass shatter along with Mister Balfour’s dreams of glory.
I walked, head down out of the office, the ticking of a grandfather clock providing the soundtrack to what must be the last of our friendly conversations.
I ran out of the school intending to head home, but Baz Balfour grasped my arm causing me to swing round and almost take us both down.
“Where you goin’, Tommy?”
“Just leave me alone, will you?” I tried to get out of his grasp but he held hard. His face frozen in terrified rictus as he stared at my legs. It was only then that he as good as threw my wrist from his grasp.
I stumbled, trying to regain control of my legs: slightly more problematic for me. I managed to make it out of the school grounds and ran home as fast as they could carry me.
As soon as I burst through our front door I knew the look on my mother’s face told me that she knew I had revealed my secret. Why it takes the spoken word from me to enable all others to see what is patently obvious from then on, still eludes me, but I saw her tears. The same tears that tell us it is time to go again. Time to move on to where we are not known. We can never stop running