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Joe Laughed
A short story by James Kelman

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It was nearly all derelict buildings down at the docks, most of them shells but some boarded up. Near the main road a couple of workshops and wee garages were open for business. Just behind them was a big scrapyard with cars piled high above the top of the walls. Security guys were supposed to be about the place and there was barbed wire but ye could still get in, the wall was bricks and there was bits where ye could fit in yer fingers. Once ye walked round the far side there was a great big patch of wasteground led clear down to the river. The surface was flat and we were using it for football but there was concrete patches so ye had to avoid tackling too heavy else ye were gony damage yer knees bad, then if ye landed on ragged metal or boulders, broken glass; even just if the concrete was rutted. Sliding in was out the question; naybody did it unless it was a mistake or they lost the head. One time Tugsy had to go to Casualty, a couple of us went with him, his knee was ripped open and his jeans were stuck with the blood. The nurse cut a big patch out and eftir they fixed him up that was that and he just had to go hame, this big hole with the bandage showing through, and the leg of his jeans hinging down. He had to get jags in the side of his knee and they used a scrubbing brush on it, they put a red ointment stuff on first then they scrubbed it. Tugsy said he didnay know what was ointment and what was blood. That was how they put the ointment on, so ye couldnay tell which was which. He watched them doing it. He didnay feel a thing cause they had froze the knee; one of the jabs was for tetanus. So although the place was good there were drawbacks.

Then too the ball made wild bounces on the concrete. That and the force of the wind. Ye wouldnay have played there during the winter. When somebody done a crazy kick the wind caught it and it flew for ages. It was a wonder it didnay go stoating right into the water. And cause there was nay give in the ground ye couldnay get yer foot under the ball right and yer heel jarred, ye had to use yer toes. But it still suited the ball-player, ye controlled it first time just, and kept it low.

We didnay know how long it would last, we expected a squadcar to pull up any day and tell us tae get to fuck. Maybe they would maybe they wouldnay. Maybe they wouldnay bother, that was what some of the guys thought. At first we used to keep an eye open but then eftir that we didnay, we just forgot, I did anyway. The games were good. It was different age-groups and it was serious, people played serious. Even if the score went wild, it just meant we shifted the sides. This game was like that and me, Joe and Perce went for a walk. It was a spell when the clouds were away and the sun was beating down. A couple of the aulder guys shouted at us but we just carried on walking. It was into September but ye felt if ye could have trusted the water ye would have been diving in and swimming. There was nay chance of that but it was all clogged up with shite, oil and liquid stuff skimming the surface. It was a right heavy smell. When ye looked down ye could see bedsteads and motor cars and auld fucking everything. I had a fag and we smoked it. We were seeing how far we could pitch boulders, watching the plunge. It seemed like the bigger the boulders the less disturbance they caused the water except the sound was bigger and deeper. Perce was doing the usual show-off, his boulders were heavier and he tossed them further. I couldnay have cared less. it was daft. Forget to let go, I said but quiet, so he wouldnay hear me. Joe was laughing and Perce looked back, wondering what it was about. He didnay have to get telt but, he knew it was me. There was aye a bit of needle between the two of us. I annoyed him he annoyed me, that was the way it went. Joe didnay care, I didnay either. I was the best player out the young team, I always got picked first. Sometimes I got picked afore a couple of the aulder yins. A pitch like this suited me, the way I played the game. It didnay suit Perce, he was an out-and-out defender, never happy unless he was kicking fuck out somebody, especially if it was me, but he couldnay get fucking near me. They were gony change the teams for the second half cause it was a big score. I was hoping to be against Perce, I would run rings round him, he wouldnay get touching the ball, it would be through his legs and fucking everywhere, he had fucking nay chance, I was looking forward to it; I felt it in my belly, I was gony fucking do him. We headed back.

The rest of the guys were sitting about, a few were playing cards. It would be a while afore the restart so we kept walking, ower the auld factory buildings. There was one we had seen the last time and wanted to check out. It had a window on the first floor with its glass out. I went up the rone-pipe and it was easy, a lot joints and places for yer feet. In through the window, it was dark and musty. Parts of the ceiling hung down with white powdery sheets and stuff sticking out. A lot of bricks and cardboard and rusty auld nails. It was obvious the place had been gutted so there wasnay gony be nothing lying about. I shouted down to the other two but Perce said he was wanting to explore. I telt them it was gutted and how the Security was supposed to be there guarding it but Perce said sometimes they just stuck up the notices to con ye and Joe says just to try and find a door.

I found one when I went down the stairs. Again it was the same story as up above, if there had been anything worth taking it wasnay here now; long gone. There was a big bar across the door but it just lifted off and there was nay padlock. I opened it nay bother. Joe and Perce came in right away and when I shut it Perce battered me on the shoulder and ran off laughing. Joe ran with him, shouting round at me. I chased for a wee while then chucked it when they disappeared through another room. I waited for them to come back but they didnay, I just went up the first floor again. I found a corridor and went along and there was an open kind of iron staircase. It was great. Ye could see through it as ye climbed. It took ye up through the roof to the next floor and here was one great big room. It looked like somebody had swept it clean. There was nothing in it at all, no even rubbish. I heard the other two yelling on me from below but I didnay bother, I couldnay be arsed. I was annoyed at them as well, what they were doing was childish. I wanted to disappear from them never mind the other way about.

I went through another door and there was an ordinary side staircase. It led up to the top landing which was an attic with slanted ceilings and skylights. What a place! It had been swept clean tae except I saw a pile of rubbish stored at a wall. I checked it out. It was mainly dirt and broken glass, the usual bits of wood and cardboard, rusty nails. There was a funny smell but, like shite. I found auld newspapers in a corner, yellow on the top but white inside. Football reports frae years ago. It was funny seeing the photies of the players. Robbie McManus was there and he had a full head of hair, he looked good. I tore the page out and put it in my pocket. I heard somebody whistle loud and it left an echo, it wasnay Joe.

At the far end of the space was another door and it opened into a wee room with a desk and a chair lying on its side. Three legs and a stump was all it had. I stood it up and gave it a push and it toppled. I done it again. Then I saw a safe. I couldnay believe it; it was just sitting there. The door was open; just and no more. It was so thick ye had to really pull it. I knew there was gony be nothing in it but I searched high and low, feeling about at the corners and looking for nooks and crannies. I didnay expect nothing anyway. Somebody aye got there afore ye.

When I slammed the door shut it clunked home but then creaked open and went to where it had been afore, its hinges werenay working right. I pushed and hauled at the desk, getting it close to the wall, in beneath the window, so as I could climb up. I went onto my tiptoes to see out but the window was high and I couldnay see the pitch. I wondered where the other two had got. Maybe they were still on the ground floor. But naw, surely they would have went exploring. If so they would have come up here. Unless they hadnay bothered. It was a pain in the neck. Just the way they done it, the way they ran off like that, it was annoying. I couldnay hear any noises so I dont think the game had restarted, but maybe it had.

The way the roof angled the view was a way ower and I couldnay see out properly at all, no unless I could stretch up higher. Maybe the game had restarted. Uch aye, it would have. Who cares, cause I didnay. Except it was annoying. I was annoyed at Joe as well. A joke’s a joke but this was beyond the score. Perce was a fucking idiot so he was, a bampot, I couldnay care less about him. It was just how Joe had went with him, that was what annoyed me. It really did. A joke’s a joke. I just thought fuck him, fuck the two of them. I couldnay care less. No even about the football, if I didnay finish the game. I wasnay even sure if I was ever gony play ever again. I’m talking about ever, for the rest of my life. I felt I wouldnay, I felt I didnay want to. I felt like I had kicked my last ball. And I was fucking glad. I was never gony fucking kick another fucking ball again in my whole fucking life and I was fucking glad, that was that, I had fucking finished with it, fucking football, I was finished. I loved football tae, I loved it. That was the amazing thing. There was nothing I loved more. There was nothing else except it. Kicking a ball about, it was the only thing. I could imagine what they would all say. My auld man. He would be shocked. They would all be shocked. I couldnay care fucking less. The game on Saturday. I didnay even know who we were playing, I couldnay even remember, and it didnay fucking matter cause that was me I was finished. If the auld man wanted to go and watch it then that was good go ahead but he was gon alone cause I wasnay playing, that was one thing.

I was on my tiptoes trying the window, it was heavy and stiff and wouldnay budge. I got down off the desk and lifted the chair onto it and got it on its side against the wall, then got back up and tested it for standing; it was alright, I could use it nay bother. My head was up past the sill and I could get most of my force for pushing. I heaved and got it open, but then it stuck halfway, less, it jammed. But I could hear a couple of the boys shouting. It sounded far away, like the pitch was right away ower the other side of the docks. I dived up my arms through the gap, then my head and shoulders. I got my elbows wedged ower the sill to take my weight. I waited, getting my breath. The roof was about five feet below. I got a shiver, that bit of dizziness ye get, my head gon that roomy way. I had to shut my eyes a wee minute.

If I dreeped down onto the roof it would be too hard getting back up again because of the slope I would have to be dead careful even doing the dreeping because of it, if I staggered one wee bit I would be down the slope and right off the edge. No unless I could get at the gutter maybe get my foot wedged in. But it would be hopeless, I would be coming down the slope too fast. It would be one go, that was all I would get. And if I didnay get it that was that.

I pulled myself right up now taking my weight on my arms. Then I let my feet touch back down. I wasnay wanting to go yet, no all the way, no till I knew how to get back. I thought I would make it but, once I got out on the ledge. I pulled myself back up again to look. Aye, I thought I could dreep down slow, get my toes touching on the slates, just touching, getting my balance.

I wasnay scared. I liked roofs and was used to them but they were tricky and ye couldnay trust auld yins cause of the slates; and they moved too much, ye had to take it one step at a time, ye had to go slow. I wasnay even sure I would find the rone-pipe. There was a lot of big weeds growing out the gutter. I saw one like a tree coming out a chimney. So it would be hard finding it. Except there had to be one somewhere cause it wasnay one of these roofs where there are bits go up and down and round corners, it was just a plain yin. Sometimes ye could look for birds and see where they were nesting and it meant the rone might be near. But even if I did find it, some gutters went out too far. That was what I was worried about, climbing ower, if there was nay grips. The best thing would be dreeping down frae the window but then gon up the way instead of down. Once I was at the top of the roof I would be able to see everything.

My arms were getting sore under the armpits. I got down off the chair then off the desk and I sat down on the floor with my back to the wall. The thing is naybody could climb higher than me. Any roof at all and I would climb it, ye had to be light and strong and able to pull yerself right up, and that was me, I could climb a rope just using my hands and arms, nay bother, and going up a rone was easy, I could wedge my toes in on nothing, just the pipe and the wall; I could turn and wave down to people, it didnay worry me; sometimes I went dizzy but I aye just waited it out, I closed my eyes or else stared into the stone then I got my bearings. The place I stayed I was known for it. If any of the women forgot their keys I was the boy they called on, I could fly up the wall and in the veranda. I done it for nothing. If they gave me money sometimes I didnay even take it. Even if they didnay offer it, I wouldnay have took it if they had. My maw didnay like me doing it but sometimes I done it for her too and my da kidded on he didnay know. It was funny when I saw the women looking up at me, their hands up at their mouth, if I was gony make it; but it was nothing, I wondered how come they were worried; I knew how far it was frae joint to joint. I didnay even have to look up. Sometimes I climbed up past the veranda ledge just because well it didnay matter. And then once I was inside their hoose I would gie them a wave. But it wasnay always easy because sometimes they had locked the veranda door and I had to jump back onto the ledge and get across from there to the sill on the bathroom window, and that was tricky cause it was a stretch, there was nay grip except the side bricks there, all ye could do was fix yer hand tight and edge out using yer knees, keeping yer hand gripped and then pulling yerself across; from there but I liked swinging out and crouching, my feet on the sill and my hands gripping the inside frame on the wee top window, afore getting my hand through and down to the handle at the side window. I would stay there perched, letting one of my legs dangle ower the edge, seeing them looking up frae below. Then I pulled the window open and in I went and the woman would come up and I would open the front door for her and her kids and that was that, that was how I done it, it was easy, I was used to it, I didnay care, that was how they called for me, well they could call for me all their life, that was how long they could call, that was from now on, cause I was finished with it; I wasnay sure what I was gony do, no from now on, I maybe no even do nothing, it would just depend.

Copyright © James Kelman 1998

Joe Laughed appears in James Kelman’s collection of short stories, The Good Times.

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Joe Laughed is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

All rights enquiries to Random House (UK) Ltd., 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA


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