A gift from a mysterious visitor changes life for a man on a Scottish estate...
How Eck Livingstone came by the glasses was simple enough but the forces behind it were, and remain to this day, dark and mysterious.
He was walking disconsolately down one of the many scabby streets near to the housing scheme where he lived when... now here I must make clear that this street shall not be named, nor the scheme, nor the city that had swept it as far to the outskirts as was civically conceivable, because it is a condition Eck laid down that in telling this tale everything should be shrouded in anonymity other than himself, the boys and one other person who will surface later; if this does not appeal to you, find some other story. So, in the nameless scabby street, and Eck did disconsolate to a T being six feet five with stringy white hair, he was mooching along when a large car with shaded windows swept past with all its own wheels — which was not usual for the area. One of the windows wound electronically down and an object was thrown out of it to land at Eck’s feet.
I am allowed to tell you one thing. The country in which this tale sets itself is Scotland.
The car revved up and disappeared in a puff of fumes, leaving Eck to stoop like a heron and pluck up the object.
It was a glasses case. Good quality, black, sturdy, not flashy. He opened it to disclose a pair of spectacles. They were rimless, almost square, the glass itself fairly thick. At the back of his consciousness, a bell rang.
Eck glanced around shiftily but the street was, even to his blurred sight, empty as last night’s can of beans, so he carefully hooked the specs over his large ears.
His long sight was worse than that of an ostrich and abject financial circumstance meant that his only pair of specs, broken when he’d slipped on the remnants of a poke of chips, had never been replaced. The thrift shop where he’d got them was now closed. Such is life.
And so he lived in a dim dejected universe. But now — oh now!
Now he could see misery with eviscerating clarity. The boarded up shops, plastic bags blowing like tumbleweed and what resembled a trail of blood-smeared bandages wrapped round a defunct lamppost. He shuddered and put up a hand to remove the spectacles but stopped. Eck caught sight of himself in a broken piece of mirror that had been propped up against a wall. The glasses shone balefully in a stray shaft of pale light. Again that nagging feeling of visual remembrance. A police siren sounded in the distance so he quickly turned on his heels and quit the scene.
Eck lived a lonely life in his dead mother’s council house. His diet was digestive biscuits, baked beans, fish fingers and twice frozen pizza. He had retreated as far from life as is possible without actually giving up the ghost.
This is as much as Eck would like you to know.
Over the next few days he noticed when he wore the glasses that his character was changing. Instead of meekly demurring when some old crone in the pound shop snatched at the last triple packet of digestives, he shoulder-charged her, body swerved a concerned social worker and made for the till. Aggression. Pure and simple.
But what really got him into trouble was football. He had never been that interested in the game — in fact any sport gave him migraines — but Eck found himself standing at the waste ground watching wee boys kick lumps out of each other: it was the school holidays so they had time as well as old tyres to burn.
One bunch in particular caught his attention. They had talent no doubt — yet how would he know what talent was? But he did. Or thought he did.
Suddenly the ball sailed through the air towards him. Eck grabbed it. Covered in muck and doggy detritus but... his ball.
“You need a system,” he announced. “Without structure, it’s a mug’s game.”
One of the boys picked up a half brick. “Gies oor ba’ back,” he said. “Or ah’ll brain ye.”
Eck did not move, the boy closed an eye the better to sight and then hesitated. Something about the way the glasses glinted bleakly in his direction stopped him in his tracks.
“You!” Eck pointed at a small Asian boy he’d noticed possessed a deal of skill but kept getting booted up into the air. “Name?”
“Bix,” came the reply. “They ca’ me Wheetie.”
“And you?” Eck pointed to a fleet-footed but gormless specimen with fair hair flopping over the one eye.
“That’s Daft Donal,” said the half-brick boy. “Ahm Jazza.” The missile was dropped and half-volleyed in the direction of Daft Donal who yelped and leapt aside.
Eck scrutinised Jazza. He was squat, with ferrety shoe-black eyes and a low centre of gravity. He looked born to destroy galacticos in the midfield.
“You can be captain,” said Eck. “Wheetie and Donal on the wings — you win nothing without wingers.” He threw the ball back to Jazza and waved a peremptory arm at the assembled motley crew. “Find your own level, like water. I’ll soon shift you if you’re not righteous.”
They all looked to Jazza who blew the snot from his nose without benefit of hankie and squinted once more at this weird figure, white hair, white face, eyes magnified by the thick glass. The eyes did not blink.
“Okay,” said Jazza. “Enough parlay. Let’s play the fuckin’ gemme.”
Over the next three hours, Eck slowly moved the combatants from one team to another, changed back to forward, forward to back, found a centre-half who was crossed-eyed and therefore had uncanny anticipation of opponent’s moves, and then a goalie called Rhino with the loudest voice known to man. “Maa ba’!!” he screamed as he flattened his own men along with anyone else in the way, punching the ball up into the dank air. A spine was being formed with Wheetie and Daft Donal the crafty deviants on the wing.
Darkness fell. Call it a day. Jazza headed off having spotted the social worker on the way to visit his family to check for bruises.
“Mister Goddard, haud on!” he bawled. “Ye have tae know the secret knock!”
The man turned and waved earnestly. He was middle-aged, sandy-haired, with a briefcase that he clutched protectively to his chest. Eck recognised him from the pound shop.
“Tomorrow. Ten sharp!” he shouted.
Jazza turned. The tall figure was almost obscured in the gloom but his glasses shone like a prison searchlight. The boy spat a gob of acknowledgement then ran after the social worker.
“Hey Mister Goddard, there’s a paedo at the fitba’,” he called. “Dead weird.”
Eck smiled in a wintry fashion. “And the rest of you,” he proclaimed in a voice that issued from somewhere he had never knowingly possessed. “Clean up your act. You look like a bunch of middens.”
And so the weeks of the summer holidays passed. Some boys fell out, more joined, but the spine stayed firm, the wingers flourished, a centre-forward was unearthed — another Asian boy nicknamed Bendy-toy who could indeed contort his lanky frame to meet the inaccurate offerings coming in from Wheetie and Daft Donal. It is always the fate of a winger to combine the deftest of touch with an ability to fall over your own feet.
Jazza would become incensed. “Ah’ve seen better crosses on the Pope’s backside!”
The team divided equally into Proddies and Papes with two Hindus thrown in, so religious insults were absorbed interdenominationally as it were — and there was always Eck.
Nothing mattered except the game. Rain, hail or shine he stood there like a lighthouse, obdurate, unflinching, glass surface reflecting the setting sun.
Occasionally there would be a flash of uncontrolled aggression, which seemed to surprise him as much as the team, but mostly it was patience, patience and more patience.
They played teams from the other schemes, lost a few early games then got on a run. Adults started turning up to bawl but the team only had ears for one voice. The adults gave up advice and started running the line. A strip was found off the back of supermarket trolley, luckily neither blue nor green — red in fact — and a name was found. Livingstone’s Untouchables. LU For short. Lulu if you wanted to provoke their wrath.
For they were an entity now. A team. They could see their image in his glasses. A body with many legs and arms. Before every game Eck pronounced the mantra. “No-one can beat us. And if they do — it’s an accident that will not be repeated.”
Daft Donal was tricky on the right, but Wheetie on the left was a revelation. He left the intestinal tracts of defenders trailing like spaghetti as he twisted them like a corkscrew, then — and this is where the patience came in because Eck had him practise till he could land it on a bailiff’s notice — speared the ball towards Bendy-Toy’s angular head.
Then a wee man in a bonnet approached Eck and asked if they wanted to join the under-11 league. Seemed the local social worker had put a word in to some committee.
Livingstone’s Untouchables were heading mainstream. All was set fair.
Eck has asked me to describe the following malignant events with dispassion.
He had now graduated from a harmless loony to a man of some substance in the community — but it did not save him.
Eck came home one night to find two young men waiting in front of his council house. He recognised them as the attached drug dealers for the estate — brothers — dressed to kill.
“You are a financial threat,” said one. “Tae our legitimate business.”
They both had calm open faces, Paul Smith shirts, black knife-edge suits with, had Eck glanced down to observe, incongruous Doc Marten boots anchoring them to the cracked pavement. A pity he missed the Doc Martens.
“We need the boys for deliveries,” said the other. “Your fitba’ is distracting them from growing up in a proper fashion. So, stop it. Pronto.”
A wise man would have nodded, made no eye contact, lived to fight another day, but Eck Livingstone had his glasses on. “Stick your demands,” said he. “Where the monkey stuck his nuts. Pronto.”
People heard the beating going on, but no-one came out to save him. Curtains closed, lights went out, shame-faced adults turned up the TV. Only Jazza made a move to the door but his equally squat father shoved him back.
“These boys are life-takers,” he said. “They’ll chib ye tae mince.”
Mercifully the razors rested in the inside pocket but the boots went in. Eck might, in other times, have appreciated the accuracy as he huddled like a long foetus while the brothers kicked their fill. When they stopped he could feel his own blood, warm in the mouth.
“That’s yer last warning,” said one. “Next time, we’ll act serious.”
As they left Eck crawled towards the shattered glasses. His world in pieces.
Is that dispassionate enough for you?
The next day, the boys gathered at the wasteland which had now been marked out into a rough football pitch shape, lines drawn, rubbish cleared, ground flattened. Word had got round fast and all they could do was wait.
“Ah don’t believe it,” muttered Jazza. “Here he fuckin’ comes.”
Eck had glued the glasses back together but looked like the woman from the Odessa Steps, the surface like a spider’s web behind which could be seen his eyes, bloodshot, the image splintered into so many versions of a once proud optic.
He walked stiffly, slowly, trying to hold in his mind a template of Clint Eastwood from a spaghetti Western — but Clint always had a horse at hand.
He finally reached the wasteland. Silence. The whole scheme held its breath.
“Let’s play football,” he said. “Time waits for no man.”
One of the old biddies from the pound shop passed and shouted, “G’wan yersel’ Big Man!” and the local social worker came round the corner as if he’d heard the call, briefcase tucked under his arm in an almost military fashion.
No-one moved from the boys. Rhino pawed at the ground scraping in frustration, Wheetie’s feet twitched but he could not let them loose, Bendy-Toy inclined his body to the side as if trying to break free from chains, Jazza was stock still.
He blew the snot from one nostril and turned away. Eck watched him leave, an empty feeling in his aching guts, at least one rib was buggered, possibly two, but who cared anyway?
Jazza stopped at the centre circle and swivelled to walk deliberately to where his position in the midfield would be. Again silence. Rhino suddenly stamped his foot and charged towards the makeshift goalposts, Daft Donal scratched his head and ambled to the right, Wheetie darted to the left, the other boys and reserve team took up position.
Eck bent down awkwardly to pick up a ball that had somehow landed at his feet as the glasses case had so long ago. Finally he remembered. The picture that had been nagging at him for all this time. The glasses. They were a ringer for Alex Ferguson’s.
He threw the ball towards Jazza who passed it neatly to Bendy-Toy at the centre spot.
Big Eck took a deep painful breath. “Let’s play football,” he said.
The story really ends there but, as is customary these days, there’s always a coda, though I have been instructed by Eck to wrap it up quick. The drug brothers were waiting three nights later but, this time, one door after another slammed open in the scheme and a collection of men and women emerged with various implements of destruction, one a particularly evil looking garden scythe, in their hands. The brothers left. Pronto.
Livingstone Untouchables won the under-11 cup but were disqualified because Jazza was revealed to be a cut down fifteen years old. It ran in the family. Eck shrugged. Too bad.
Wheetie attracted scouts from all over and Manchester United even showed up. The boy’s parents only trusted Eck who told the scouts, “I will deal with one man and one man solo.”
And so it came to pass that one day a large car with shaded windows rolled up in front of Eck’s council house and a stocky fellow emerged. He knocked at the door. Eck opened it and stood there with his ruined glasses. The stocky fellow entered.
What passed between is not known, although Wheetie became the first British Asian player to take the park for United. The important thing however is that, as the car sped away, the window rolled down and a glasses case flew out to land at Eck’s feet. His agent’s fee.
That’s the tale. I have done the best I can. I will now pick up my briefcase and go on my round of hopeless healing. Each to his own. But just to end it?
Eck picked up the glasses case, opened it, and put on the tools of his trade. Jazza was appointed first-team coach.
Heading for glory.