For the fourth time in five minutes, Jimmy Sanderson scrutinises the notice on the door, then his Mickey Mouse wristwatch. He sniffs his armpits, cups his hands to check his breath, licks a mint, rubs it over his underarm hair before popping the sweet into his mouth. He glares at the poster once more. A face from before his breakdown grins back.
‘After twenty years it’s embarrassing, they still put, ‘…winner of the Dunoon Burns poetry recital…’ I was only ten.’
‘Very cute you were too in your wee kilt and ginger curls. Remember to wind the show up early today as this room doubles as the dining hall.’ Bridie’s nostrils twitch. ‘Get a whiff of that. School dinners. Steak pie, caramel cake with custard. Takes you back. Remember Mrs Watson?’
The old familiar memory of the six-foot dinner lady looming over him while he choked on the powdery scoops of mashed potatoes only quickens his already racing pulse.
‘You’re not helping, Bridie.’
To distract himself, Jimmy counts the grease-coated tiles on the wall. He gets to two hundred before clutching his sister’s arm. ‘It’s not working. Let’s leg it before the brats arrive. I’ll phone in ill.’
‘You’re self-employed, silly. Anyway, we’re already here. What is it this time? Reading someone else’s mind?’
‘I don’t read – . No, this hot weather is making me dizzy.’
‘It’s fifteen degrees.’
‘Too hot for March. It’s not normal.’
‘Take off your duffle coat, your mittens and your beret, you daft bampot.’
‘What if I forget to put them …?’
‘Give them here, numpty. I’ll look after your stuff, as always. Just a week’s worth of shows, then you’re off for Easter. Shape up. The great horde is coming.’
A high-pitched throb of sixty twelve-year-olds gearing up to tear him apart charges the air. ‘Why did you accept this gig? I won’t – I can’t – I hate kids.’
Ignoring her brother’s tantrum, Bridie strokes his hair like when he used to see monsters behind the bedroom wardrobe. ‘Because you bring in a pile of cash for two songs and a story, sweet boy. Stop blubbering. Think of what you did before. Flogging TV filter screens door-to-door. That was worth grumbling about.’
‘What if I pass out in this heat?’
‘For crying out loud! Please, change the record. You’re doing my head in. You’re cool. You’ve run this project for five years, why do you still lose it like that? You’re the best paid storyteller in the country.’
Outside the assembly room, the hum rises three semitones. Any minute now, they’ll unlatch the door and Jimmy Sanderson will transpose into his alter ego, Sandy Jameson, raconteur. Funny, spontaneous, guest artist at this school culture week.
His palms drip, his throat dries, his tongue sticks to his teeth, he forgets the first line of the story.
Jimmy brushes Bridie’s hand off. ‘Don’t you get it? It’s getting warmer. I can’t –’
‘James Eaton Sanderson. Catch a grip. You’ve acted out this play every day since the start of October. You could do it in a coma. Remember the stage fright coaching sessions. Breathe in for two, out for four. In for three, out for six … That’s my boy. Take a big slug of water from the jar on the table. Have you been to the lavatory?’
Bridie, her brother’s chauffeur since his seventh failed driving test, fiddles with the car keys. ‘Can’t work out why you don’t start a teaching diploma.’
Jimmy blows out for ten. ‘Sis, I’d rather snog Mrs Watson.’
Bridie tuts and turns to the entrance. ‘I’ll tell them to -.’
He blows into his ebony mouthpiece and starts the ritual, nestling the tasselled tartan bag under his right arm, his expert fingers covering the holes.
The small circular stage is bare apart from a tall stool on which Jimmy plants himself, both feet rooted on the varnished floorboards. With practised ease, the storyteller squeezes his right elbow towards his ribs.
When the double doors burst open, dozens of hormone-crazed youngsters storm in.
The howling wail of the bagpipes usually drowns out the kids’ yelling. Today is different. A volatile blend of full moon, last week of term along with an unexpected Cup triumph of the local third division team rockets the decibel level above that of the pipes.
The time-tested combination of bass drone tonic and fifth only harmonises the group if they can hear it. The skirl which loosened the bowels of enemy armies from Bannockburn to El Alamein has no effect on this shapeless mass of youthful exuberance.
When he read the headmistress’s e-mailed apology two days ago, he should have cancelled.
But Jimmy, up to his bald patch in bills, cannot afford to turn work down. Only a few months till the July recess, after which he’ll have to rely on busking round Europe for the summer. He needs this cash.
He scouts out the alpha kid, usually a boy. Pre-warned by one of the fraught, prematurely aged teachers, he learns the target’s name is Gerald Cartwright.
Big Gerry, as his followers call him, barges in, toppling over the younger kids like skittles, slaps two girls on their heads then lets rip a deafening burp, seasoning the already heady atmosphere with Gerald’s fried breakfast.
Bridie reaches for her mint scented Kleenex, grins and points him out to her brother. Gerry Cartwright is about to step down from his hero status.
As Jimmy coaxes more volume out of the four-pronged beast, his face puces up. Although their father and grandfather played bagpipes in two world wars, Jimmy brought discredit on his people by not joining the army but becoming a storyteller.
‘A showman,’ said his mother.
‘Damn cowardly show-off, more like,’ snarled his ex-army, pipe-major father, the only piper of his regiment to survive the D-day landings.
The adolescents sit, grouped in little cliques, conspiring how to mess up the show.
Every time Jimmy struggles to make them clap in time, they speed up as if at a football match. As the rhythmic breathing into the blowpipe subdues Jimmy’s panic attacks, he studies the throng round the bully, and breathes out for twelve. He is tuned up for the next stage.
The storyteller weighs up the mathematics of the youth. The statistics of his body. The pulsing of blood on his temple artery, the regularity of his hand gestures, the speed of his blinking, the inflection of his stupid guffaws.
Jimmy’s gift impressed even the late Staff Sergeant Sanderson in his final years, when his son helped him recall his darling Peggy despite his stage four dementia.
His eyes flicker at the identical frequency of the youngster’s, his head nods in the same rhythmic pattern, he plays a simple melody echoing young Cartwright’s chortle. The bellowing laughter cuts off like a shut tap.
As if blasted by lightning, the lad goes rigid. His jaw slackens. He latches onto the storyteller’s face. When Jimmy breathes slower, Gerry follows suit. Jimmy cocks his head to the left, the boy mirrors him.
Without losing eye contact, Jimmy trills a top C on the chanter, five hundred and twenty-three saw-like vibrations per second prise open Gerry’s cerebral synapses. Jimmy momentarily loosens his grip on the bag, Gerald Cartwright’s eyes snap wide open with the abrupt silence, until the renewed bass pulse cradles him like a mesmerised cobra.
Jimmy is in.
Inside the boy’s head.
Gerry Cartwright’s mind is a dizzying minefield of yells, curses, dodging blows. Memories of abuse mix with changes of foster families. Men unzipping their trousers mingle with mourning for his mother, killed by a drunk driver days before his fourth birthday.
No one else in the hall catches this exchange which hardly lasts two breath cycles, but Jimmy Sanderson tiptoes around the disjointed images with skilful care.
He selects Fanny Cartwright’s three most repeated expressions. A motherly tone whispers, ‘My little soldier,’ ‘Sweet child,’ ‘Curly burley.’ She coos, ‘I’m here with you, my love. Everything is magic in your life.’
Adopting Fanny’s breathy voice, Jimmy croons a lullaby from Gerry’s memories.
‘Ally bally ally bally bee,
sitting on yer mammie’s knee…’
Baby Gerry stretches out his arms to be picked up. Balls of saliva roll down his wet chin. The class tutors can’t explain the boy’s behaviour nor the torrent of tears, nor the awed hush from his normally rowdy crew.
Jimmy loops the chorus ten times till Gerald Cartwright is cried out, then closes his eyes for three seconds, severing the link. Weeks have passed since he last used his gift, he’s out of practice.
A whimpering Gerald Cartwright slumps into his chair, humming his mother’s bedtime song, his head rested on his neighbour’s shoulder.
When Bridie gives her brother the prearranged signal, he presses harder on the bag. The instrument’s low growl spreads throughout the hall. Jimmy Sanderson observes the pacified, expectant faces of Gerry Cartwright’s gang and starts.
‘One day, in the North of Scotland…’