The wee girl went down in the slush in a soft-boned sprawling way. Gold threads glittered in the sailing-ship crest of St Stephen's school uniform through an unfastened green anorak. A kirby kept long hair, the colour of a sherbet dab, from fizzing over her face. Her movements when getting up became cautious and jerky as a geriatric. She clung to McIver’s hedge with her feet splayed – slipping again, she banged her knee. She studied her feet and thick cabled socks which sneaked down unevenly, wrinkling her legs, ready to expose her ankles as soon as she moved. Clear grey eyes, close to tears, rested on John’s.
Snowflakes clung like porridge to the leather uppers of his Doc Martens blanketed his progress, and biting cold nipped at his feet through two mismatched pairs of football socks. He scanned parked cars, luminous shells of white on light, and looked up towards Shakespeare Avenue, searching for the lumbering presence of an adult, or even the bundled-up spectre of an older brother or sister, hurrying along to catch up with the wee girl. She tottered. He dashed the last few yards to help her and found himself lying on his back at her feet, snowflakes drifting down on his face. He laughed, which made her giggle.
He tried standing, but toppled forward. The wee girl squealed, her fingers scrambling to help, grabbed at the coat-tails of his Crombie. He hooked her wrist, gripped her cold hand, holding her upright and them both safe. She was barely up to his hip. He hunched down to her level, feet sliding sideways.
‘You waiting for your mum?’
A shake of her head. No. Eyes downcast, chin tucked into her quilted anorak, she whispered something though chittering lips.
‘You goin’ to school?’ he asked.
A nod of her head. Yes.
‘Okay-dokey,’ he said, standing up slowly, keeping her close, stopping her from falling.
Her black shiny shoes were broad and flat-soled leather, which irked him – she might as well have been wearing skis. They slid diagonally towards the dentists, shaving the snow, uncovering where the pavement should have been and letting gravity do the work of walking. She giggled as he made a game of it.
They got safely to the corner of Duntocher Road, which made it easier to shuffle forward and reclaim their feet. Kids sloshed in close beside them in weatherproof nylon. They were careless of their bodies, faces sunk inside igloos of duffle-coat hoods. Adults bowled along behind them, collars pulled high and heads bowed in prayer to the elements. A Ford Capri stuttered and skittered, awash, scattering mush towards the side of the road. It juddered forward, slipping and crunching gears, windscreen wipers shuttling backwards and forwards to expose a pasty face leaning forward in the driver’s seat. Parents looked at the car out of the corners of their eyes, resentment shaping blank faces as if machinery was alien and a form of cheating.
‘You must be new to the school.’ John spoke to her in the milky-adult tone, he adopted when talking to bairns or pets. He kept her small hand warm in his and helped her cross the road and find the lip of pavement. ‘What primary are you in? Primary one?’
She nodded in a shy way, neck bent and exposed, face hiding in her hair, as if even that small exertion had been too much.
They shuffled onward without slipping. A wrought-iron fence separated them from the playground. The school children penned inside were delirious with the crop of falling sky, screaming and squealing in an ecstasy of stamping and running and jumping and hustling away patches of virgin snow. John let go of her hand as the school bell rang. But she didn’t let go of his. She grabbed at his fingers and held tight.
He leaned over her. ‘It’s ok darling. I won’t leave you.’
She sheltered behind his legs.
She nodded. ‘Sometimes big people don’t understand,’ she lisped.
‘I know darlin’. I know. But you better hurry up or you’ll be late.’
She tugged at his hand, a signal to get them moving. They were only a hundred yards from the gates. He stopped and stood among the other bystanders when they got to the entrance to the school, watching her solemn face as she trudged across the playground. As she past the school kitchen, he lost sight of her in a gaggle of other kids.
‘You lost something?’
John whirled round, a daft smile still coating his face.
Mrs Cunningham’s sing-song voice was unusually harsh. She was an older woman with kids that lived five blocks down from him. He had never spoken to her much because she had proper breasts and was way too pretty to attempt anything but the rudimentary grunting, hi-yah, conversation with. She wore a long black leather coat and hip length boots. Snowflakes dampened her dark head. Her back was against the railing that separated road from pavement and she was fish-eying him.
John felt glad of the swirling snow because it kept his cheeks from flaming. He patted the plastic bag he had rolled up and wore as a hat to keep the snow off his hair. He thought maybe that had upset her in some way. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I was just taking that wee lassie to school.’
‘Whit wee lassie?’ Mrs Cunningham’s lip gloss was a discoloured patchwork of jigsaw splinters on her mouth. The lollipop man knocked the cleats of his wellington boots off the bottom of the fence beside her. ‘Charlie, you see him with any wee lassie?’ she asked him.
Some mothers slipped away. Others dawdled, patterned-nylon scarves covering their hair, heads turning one way then the other, waiting to pick over the bones of gossip.
The lollipop man battered his cap off the top bar of the railing and examined John through the smudged lenses of black NHS-specs. ‘Drugs or drink,’ he said. ‘They’re all on it. I was watchin’ him.’ He put his cap back on, pulling the brim low so his eyes were shaded. ‘Or glue,’ he added.
Mrs Cunningham tugged together the lapels of her leather coat making her breasts jump. ‘That’s whit I thought. I’ve got two daughters at that school.’
‘But the wee lassie—’ John said.
Mrs Cunningham took a step towards him. ‘Look son, I don’t like it when you keep harping on about wee lassies.’
‘Or wee boys,’ said the lollipop man.
They looked at each other and shook their heads. She tugged at her earlobe and a gold bubble earring. ‘Look son,’ she said, in a more placatory tone. ‘Just don’t let me see you back here again. I know your Ma. You come from a good family. Let that be the end of it.’
‘But the wee lassie—’John said.
‘Let that be the end of it!’