I only met them a few times. For me, the final encounter was the best.
The wheelchair I was temporarily confined to ought to have protected me from any cruel remarks. It proved, however, to be no barrier to them and no armour for me. I felt every word they threw at me.
At first, I had been angry to be restrained in such a way but I knew that life brought its own trials and, gradually, I had begun to accept the necessity of my conveyance.
‘It is only for a little while,’ my daughter, Anne, had reminded me time and again.
My ill-temper had abated and now I allowed Anne to push me around the town. There was little point in attempting to do so myself: I was useless at steering and there were too many hills to negotiate safely in the out-dated contraption they had given me at the hospital.
I was embarrassed at being so immobilised but I did not expect these feelings to be aggravated by ridicule. Not, that is, until we met the little swine. For swine they were: truffling about in the twilight; scenting out delights of trouble; heedless of anyone or anything else but their own malicious pursuits. I had seen them before, in passing. Now, travelling at this forcedly slow pace, there could be no passing. Only confrontation.
‘I like your pram, auld man!’ one wit called.
‘Give us a hurl,’ said another, looking sideways for approval from the first.
My daughter said nothing and continued to push the chair as if she had heard nothing. I wanted to say two words but I had always avoided swearing in the presence of my children. Not that it would have shocked her. No-one could avoid hearing it these days. Where once foul language had been the preserve of navvies, now you could hear it on any bus or street: from male or female, regardless of age; without any thought for who could overhear.
What I would not have given to have told them where to go. But I was disciplined. And abstinence from cursing within my family circle for so long left me speechless now. Instead, I ignored them and muttered to myself, keeping the annoyance within.
The second meeting happened some time later. Again, my daughter was with me.
Having dwelt on the previous encounter for so long afterwards, I knew I would not let another opportunity go by.
The heckling began as soon as they saw our approach.
‘Hey, it’s the auld guy. Give us a wee shot, eh.’
Without waiting for more, I said,
‘You had better know that I’m a veteran a….’
My sentence went unfinished as one yob jumped in front of me. Grabbing hold of both arms of the wheelchair, he sneered directly into my face, his breath reeking of cheap wine and cigarettes.
‘I don’t care if you’re a veteran of the Gulf War or a veteran surgeon……You’re in a pram now. Some set of wheels. Is this your tank?’ Stupidly cackling at his own remark.
He could not have been more than fourteen or fifteen years old and I knew that to lay a hand on him would involve my daughter and myself in trouble. Street-wise life knew their rights. Responsibilities were never mentioned. The plastered leg beneath my blanket would have made an ideal weapon but, again, caution prevailed. I abstained from any rash action.
My daughter’s voice held fear in its simple statement, but only I would recognise that.
‘Excuse us,’ she said. ‘You’re in our way and that policeman coming along the street has his eye on you.’
The youth turned and, fortunately, a blue-uniformed figure was indeed making his way towards us.
One of the three said, ‘It’s the polis. Move!’
As one, they scurried off. The leader’s parting shot was a glob of spit which landed right in front of my chair.
The officer approached us and asked, with genuine concern, if the youths had troubled us.
‘Youths!’ I said. ‘Little swine, more like. I’ll fix them soon enough.’
‘Now, Sir,’ said the young policeman, ‘I couldn’t possibly condone your taking matters into your own hands. If, however, you would like to make a formal complaint about their behaviour to you, I could certainly assist in some way. Our hands are so often tied in these matters.’
I spoke briefly with the officer and reassured him that I did not intend the young ones actual bodily harm. Reminding us to take care, he gave me or my wheelchair a sympathetic glance and patrolled on, bending his head to radio some message or other in.
Anne pushed me slowly home, worrying all the while about the state of today’s youth: what could be the root causes; what could be done to change the course of the frightening decline.
I wondered too. I wondered about my own determination to protect my children from danger and evil and foulness. I wondered about the parents who did not know what their offspring were doing and showed little care to find out. I wondered about how safe any person was, in a world where even someone in a wheelchair was fair game. I thanked God for many aspects of my life on that slow journey home. I especially thanked him for my broken leg and the insight it had given me. And how I thanked Him for the news the doctor had given me earlier that week. Soon the plaster would be off.
I would give those young ones a chance. A few months to see if life and the opportunities it presents had had any impact on them. A few months to regain my strength.
When I explained the situation to the doctor at my check up, he very kindly agreed to lend me the wheelchair for the day. Anne was less than happy to be an accomplice to what she feared would end in harm but I reassured her.
We took the same route as before and, sure enough, they were there. At the corner of the street they stood, just past the public park that almost everyone was afraid to venture into at night. The three of them were there. I had my eye on one. Break the leader, I said to myself. Go for the leader.
I told my daughter to slow down a little and, long before we reached them, Loudmouth started.
‘Hey, boys. It’s the auld man, the vet. Come on we’ll see if he’ll give us a wee shot today. There’s no polis about.’ A quick check around confirmed his statement.
Nothing had changed, obviously.
Anne coughed nervously, knowing that this time matters would be different. I heard her mumble a prayer. She need not have worried. I meant no harm. Just a little lesson in humility.
Now they were in front of us, blocking our path, ready to begin again.
I forestalled them.
‘You boys owe my daughter and myself an apology.’
Loud laughing prevented me from saying anything further.
‘An apology, is it?’ the leader said. ‘Get that, boys. The auld guy wants us to say sorry to him and his bitch. Fat chance.’
Again, there was loud laughing as one looked to the other and back to me for my reaction.
I could feel my ire rise at the crude way he spoke of my daughter. I breathed deeply and exercised the discipline that would win the day.
I pulled my blanket up, enough to reveal my footwear.
It had the desired effect.
‘Ho, Tam, check the trainers.’
Tam, the leader, looked longingly at my footwear.
‘Now, wait a minute, Granda, I could do with a pair of those. What size are you?’
At this question and without another word I pulled the blanket aside and stood up.
‘I’ll give you a five second start. Go!’ I shouted.
Confusion lasted long enough for them to take in the rest of my attire. Then they ran.
They headed down the street and straight for the park. This was their haunt. They knew it well. But I did too. I chased. At first, they pulled away from me – youth and speed – a natural combination.
I followed. I felt bionic. Into the park, between the trees, over flowerbeds, onto forbidden grass, into the centre of a small copse of trees. Yes, they were young. Yes, they were fast. At first. But I had stamina and years of running behind me; road races, track events, cross country, marathons. I had these. Grey hair mattered not. In and out and through the trees, I kept my eyes on one. Catch the leader, I told myself. Tam ran but began to wane. I ran and caught.
His frightened eyes took in my gleaming ones. Full knowledge dawned as he read the inscription on my running vest. ‘Veteran Athletics’.
‘Move,’ I said. ‘My daughter’s waiting. There’s no excuse for pig-ignorance. Make the apology a good one.’
And from some vantage point, his peers witnessed it. Tam had fallen. When I am old, as well as grey, I know I will especially savour and remember the feel of my hand on the scruff of his neck as I ran him back to the point of conflict: he, puffing and panting for breath, trying to keep up, while I kept time for him, with ‘hup, two, three, fours’.
Even now I like to think that I did for him and his cronies what someone once did for me. Set me on the right track.