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Chapter Six

A new world

James gulped and swallowed hard. He stood alone on the pavement before the eight-foot-high black and gilt gates of The Academy’s main entrance. Slung over one shoulder was his ‘new’, near-empty schoolbag, actually a used khaki army surplus gas mask bag that he’d bought for 3s6d from Millets with his saved-up pocket money and, had he only known it, one not unlike the one his mother had used during fire watch on the roof of MacFergus. It was 8.30 am on the first day of the autumn term, 1958. The streets around the school were a hectic of blue, white and grey uniforms and the clamour of hundreds of returning academicals streaming down approaches in the early morning sunshine, alighting from buses, cycling down to the bike sheds and gathering in the playgrounds. They strolled along the pavement behind James, chatting and greeting each other, casting amused, pitying or condescending glances in his direction. But strangely, not one of them entered the school through this apparently exclusive entrance.

Between the gates and the intimidating crowds of pupils, some of whom appeared almost as old as his Uncle Alistair, James was, to put it mildly, terrified. Yes, he was decked out in his new school uniform. But he knew he was an imposter. He didn’t belong here. His pass in the Qualy had been a mistake. They were sure to find out. Everyone would see through him and he’d be sent home in disgrace. He almost turned on his heel and walked away, but something stopped him. What would Auntie Effie say after paying for his uniform? What would his dad say? After all, he’d offered his son his best advice: If anybody tries tae bully ye, knock ’is block off! What would his mother say after seeing him off for his first day at The Academy?

She’d stood with him in the entry of Number 68, knowing not to embarrass him in front of the whole street. She’d looked him up and down, mentally ticking off the first-day-at-the-new-school checklist. As she noted the discrepancy between his appearance in his smart uniform and the trepidation written all over his face, her heart was bursting with emotion for him. But she didn’t show it. She’d done so many things for him. She’d borne him, breast-fed him, cherished him and loved him. She’d taught him right from wrong. She’d ensured he had three good meals a day. She’d worried constantly about his health and pestered the doctors. She’d got him sunray treatment. She’d rubbed Vicks on his chest. She’d made sure he got his daily dose of National Health Service cod liver oil. She’d managed his primary schooling as best she could. But this new chapter of his life she couldn’t do for him. It was beyond her abilities. He’d have to do it by himself.

“Well, son, off ye go,” was all she’d managed to say, smoothing down the arms of his blazer and stifling any hint of tears. Then, as an afterthought, “Ah ken ye’ll be a credit tae me and yer dad.”

She hadn’t waved as he’d walked up the street, even when he’d looked round. She’d just stood in the entry with her arms folded, smiling and nodding encouragement. Then he was on his own.

Movement at the edge of his vision interrupted his thoughts. Someone was standing next to him. He looked sideways. Another new boy by the looks of him. Everything about him was new. The flawless school uniform. The shiny shoes. The near-empty school bag. The short haircut. The scrubbed, over- young face. He stuck out a mile. Just like me, thought James and even more terrified, going by the expression on his face. But the other boy’s palpable show of fear combined with his own vacillation before the gates had an unexpected effect on him. Suddenly, he felt brave. Determination welled up inside him. It seemed he’d inherited some of his mother’s genes after all.

“Come on,” he said with a touch of impatience directed more at himself than the stranger. “What’re we waitin’ for?”