Below is one of the stories from my new book, The Shadow People Won't Take Us Alive & Other Lost Souls. It's one of my favourites. Haven't got your copy of the book yet? Click here or follow the link at the bottom of the page.
“You pussying out or what?”
The voice was Jace, one of the “cool kids” from my school. I stood there, looking through the mesh of wire fencing surrounding Mrs. Dorries house, splitting her world into a thousand diamonds. At least that’s what it looked look to me. I turned to look at Jace and the other kids (D-Boy, Sandy & Billy) who stood there with there arms folded, staring at me impatiently.
“He’s a pussy,” said D-Boy. “He isnae gonnae dae it. He’s no goat wit it takes to be in oor gang.”
This lit a fire under me. I’d been without a proper group of friends for a number of years now. I was 12 years old and I’d grown up on a diet of books & films like Stand By Me, Diner & Grease. They were all movies with groups of friends and I desperately wanted to be part of my own little cool gang. Maybe Jace, D-Boy, Sandy & Billy weren’t the cream of the crop but it beat staying at home every night and watching all the other kids have fun outside. What I didn’t expect was to have to go through some sort of initiation process, nor it be something so, well, criminal.
I turned back to them. “I’m naw a pussy, I jist….is there naw somethin' else? I know Mrs. Dorries, she looks after me sometimes when my parents are late back from work. Is there naebody else?”
Jace looked at the others then walked toward me, jabbing a finger in my chest, then pointed to the house. “Naw Davie,” said Jace. “There isnae. Now get in there and steal that old bitch’s wig, eh?”
I gulped, trying not to show it. This wasn’t like The Goonies. I wondered if I did my own version of the Truffle Shuffle I might be able to defuse the tension and endear myself to the group. But I didn’t have the required jiggle and they’d probably just beat me up anyway. Instead, I turned back to the house and examined it.
Mrs. Dorries was a hermit. She was a recluse who hadn’t left her house in over 2 years, not since her husband had passed. We used to call Mr. Dorries The Man With The Lego Hair or The Scaletrix Man. He used to walk around the town with Mrs. Dorries with the worst wig on. They sometimes looked like a bit of Lego, or the little grey bits you’d get on the back of a Scaletrix car, hence the names. Mrs. Dorries also used to wear wigs, slightly better fitting and always a different colour every day. Nobody knew why she wore a wig but we all thought it was maybe to support Mr. Dorries so he didn’t feel alone. They had earned the nickname around town of The Wiggies. But a few years ago, Mr. Dorries had been diagnosed with cancer and died after a brief, but fierce, battle. Mrs. Dorries hadn’t been seen by anyone since, only in the garden or through the windows. Except by me. My parents often worked late and Mrs. Dorries, only a few streets away from our own, would look after me. Even then I didn’t see her too often. She’d let me in, ask how school was then give me a sandwich, crisps and some biscuits on a plastic plate shaped like a flower petal. Then she’d give me the remote to watch TV and then she’d retreat upstairs to her room. She’d come back downstairs to speak to my parents when they came to pick me up, and that was that. One day though, coming out of the bathroom I saw that one of the usually closed doors on the upstairs landing was open. Curiosity getting the better of me, I peeked in. And it was a room dedicated to wigs, even Mr. Dorries old wig. I told one of the people in class the next day and Jace had overheard. And now here we were. They had offered an exchange of friendship and being included in their gang if I could steal one of Mrs. Dorries wigs for each of them, but especially Mr. Dorries wig. The Holy Grail. I was Indy and this was The Last Crusade. Against all instincts, I’d accepted the mission. And now here I was. I took a deep breath, and started to climb.
Mrs. Dorries didn’t often see the light of the morning these days. She didn’t often venture outside the house if she could avoid it. In fact, even if she thought hard about it, she couldn’t remember the last time she had stepped over the threshold of her front porch. Everyday, she woke up with the vague notion that today would be the day that she would go outside, even if it was just to the shop to pick up a carton of milk and a loaf of bread. But everyday, she failed to muster up the courage to do so. Instead, she would wake up around noon get herself a cup of tea and toast, read the papers and watch a bit of Lorraine Kelly that she’d recorded from that morning. Then she’d either wait for deliveries (groceries, clothes, whatever took her fancy now she’d learned how to use the internet) or wait for the delightful little McDonald’s boy Davie to come home from school where she’d babysit him until his parents came home. On the days she had neither, she would don one of her wigs, dress to the nine’s and go on an adventure on her own from the safety of her own house by picking up one of her husband’s old books and getting lost in its pages. Some days she was a reclusive pirate or a heroic hermit and other days she was secluded seductress, an isolated investigator or an acrophobic explorer. Then she’d get to the end of the book, take off the wig, open the blinds and remember she was alone. His books were the only items of her husband’s she’d kept, other than his wig, which she kept on the same mannequin head he used to keep it on. Everything else she had thrown away. It was too painful to walk from room to room and be reminded of her loss. No wonder Christopher Columbus had risked sailing off the edge of the world in a quest to prove the Earth wasn’t flat – what else would drive a man to such lengths unless the loss of the person he loved most?
Mrs. Dorries began her daily routine (it was a Saturday so no deliveries to come and no Davie) flicking through the bookshelf and her wig collection when she noticed something peculiar out of the window. It was Davie, climbing over her back fence dropping to the ground and crouching low, sneaking toward the house. Why he didn’t just use the front door, she didn’t know. Then it dawned on her and she made her way to the back door.
I landed on my feet like a cat, or rather a ninja – ninjas are cooler – and started to sneak toward the back door. I knew Mrs. Dorries would be in, but I just hoped she was sleeping. I knew she slept most hours of the day when she wasn’t looking after me or doing whatever else she did in the house. As I got closer to the back door I could feel the beady eyes of my potential gang mates burning into my back like an ant under a sun filled magnifying glass. The plan was simple, crawl through the cat-flap in the backdoor (weird because she no longer had a cat), sneak upstairs and grabs the wigs and get back downstairs. If she found me in the house, I had my excuse ready – my Mum asked me to come over and ask if you wanted to come out for dinner next week. She tried calling but there was no answer. It was the perfect excuse because she wouldn’t accept the invitation and wouldn’t question that fact she’d missed a call – her hearing was losing it’s touch in her old age plus she’d “gone a bit batty upstairs” as my Dad would say, so she’d have no problem buying that she hadn’t heard the phone ring.
As I approached the cat flap, I took a deep breath and started to make my way through. When I was halfway through, something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. The door swung open and I swung with it cracking my head on the bottom of the fridge and letting out a yelp not too dissimilar to the cat she probably once owned and caused Mrs. Dorries to jump back in fear and grab a nearby broom.
There was really no prepared excuse I had for this, I thought, as I heard the unmistakable sound of Jace, D-Boy, Sandy & Billy scarpering down the street and away from danger.
When Mrs. Dorries realized it was me coming through her cat flap she put the broom down and helped me through the last few inches and pulled me to my feet. She was remarkably strong for such an old lady. Grabbing a bag of frozen peas from the freezer she sat me down and pressed them to my forehead. There was already a large bump starting to show.
“Davie what on earth where you doing down there?” she asked.
My dinner invitation excuse wasn’t going to cut it. “Um, I….well ye see….the hing is…..” I heard myself say. Great. Just bloody great. Indiana Jones, eat your fucking heart out.
She started to smile as I continued to stammer on, which was confusing, I thought maybe I should go get my head checked out, because I was pretty sure that was not the reaction most people have when they’ve just found a 10 year old boy sneaking into their kitchen through a cat flap. But she was definitely smiling. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Mrs. Dorries, why are ye smilin’?” I said.
“Because you’re just a sweetheart, do you know that?” she said.
The bump to the head had killed me. It had to have done. This was mental. “Whit dae ye mean?”
She checked the bump and took the peas off then looked into my eyes, staring right into my soul. My guilty, wee, breaking and entering, arsehole of a soul.
“If you wanted to visit me on the weekends, you could have just asked! There’s no need to come and surprise me, although it was a nice idea. But look what you’ve done, you’ve hurt yourself,” she said smiling.
My Dad was right. Completely fucking batty. She had gone full Captain Jack Sparrow up top. But there it was my get out of jail-free card. “Och, it’s awrite Mrs. Dorries, I jist thought….”I stopped myself. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was because of the bump to the head or maybe it was because she just looked dead simple sitting there staring at me. Or maybe it was because any lie would be protecting the wee bastards I was trying to be pals with who just ran off and left me under the bus. Before I knew it I was telling her the whole sorry tale. How I was a right wee Billy no mates in school and they’d offered to be my friends and let me join their gang if I did a series of tasks. These included throwing my neighbours garden furniture over the fence, putting pins under the wheels of the Scout leaders car, stealing a toy police gun from the newsagents and finally stealing her and most terrible of all, her husband’s wigs. She sat and listened to the entire story without saying a word. Then she stood up walked away toward the kitchen door. I felt sick. I thought for sure she was going to phone my parents and grass me in, but she didn’t. She got to the door, turned round and smiled at me, beckoning me to follow her. “Come with me.”
I got up and followed her out of the kitchen and upstairs.
I still wasn’t sure what was happening, but I was starting to feel that I wasn’t going to get into trouble, which I was half relieved, half guilty about. We walked up the stairs and into the wig room. Now I was starting to get a little scared. Maybe this was my punishment. Maybe this was how she got her wigs; bumping off wee boys that have been bastards to her and keeping their hair. I started to feel sick again when she turned away from the wig wardrobe and looked at me.
“Right, Davie. On you go. Pick one.”
Whit? I stared at her. “Whit?”
“Whichever one you want, pick it. Preferably one with a fringe to cover that horrible bump you’ve got. On you go.”
I had no idea what was happening, but I stepped forward and started to flick through the wigs over the watchful eye of Mrs. Dorries. Finally, I settled on a blue curly one. It was my favourite colour and I could never get my hair to go that cool 80s curly way that I liked from the movies. I pointed at it and she picked it up and put it on my head. It was a perfect fit. After she adjusted it slightly, she picked one for herself and put it on.
“There you go. You’re in my gang now Davie. You don’t need those wee shits for pals. And don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing just because some wee pricks have asked you too.”
My mouth went slack-jawed. I had never heard Mrs. Dorries speak like that before. Or swear. She smiled and winked at me. I smiled back.
“Thanks Mrs. Dorries.” I adjusted my wig and looked at the both of us in the mirror. We looked a weird pair. I started laughing and so did Mrs. Dorries.
“Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s almost lunchtime and I’m hungry. What do you say, food?”
“Aye, on ye go. Whit have ye got in the kitchen?”
Mrs. Dorries paused for a moment then smiled. “Why don’t we go out for a change, eh?”
My mouth went slack-jawed again, which caused Mrs. Dorries to give me another wink and the pair of us went downstairs and left the house, Mrs. Dorries breathing in the air like she was tasting it for the first time.