Brisk morning wind pushed down the corridors of St Francis, past rowdy queues of juniors waiting to be let into their science labs or rushing late to maths, and Richard followed it. The crowds made way for him.
They’d talked for a while, last night. Again, it had been pretty easy, even though he knew there was something more going on. He could sense the question that she wasn’t asking: are we going out? Is that what this is?
In Mr Gerrold’s room he took his usual seat beside Scott and they both produced their folders, knowing the routine. Richard removed his essay and with a small stapler from his bag he carefully clipped the corner. Scott solemnly presented his own essay and Richard clipped that as well.
Mr Gerrold entered, already talking. ‘Essays done, gentlemen?’ He nodded approvingly at the affirmative mumbles and handed over the essay box to be passed around.
‘Not me,’ said Kane, a burly member of the first fifteen.
‘And why not, Mr Winters?’
Kane was leaning back with his chair balanced on two legs. ‘Cos I didn’t do it.’
Mr Gerrold crunched his lips. ‘And it’ll be ready when?’
‘How about Monday then eh Mr Gerrold?’
‘The usual penalties, Mr Winters. Try not to keep this trend going.’
‘Nah nah no worries eh.’
Richard felt Scott nudge him in the ribs and he realised his eyes had been closing. He blinked himself awake. Scott whispered, ‘Late night?’
‘Because of essay or because of Kirsty?’
‘Bit of both.’
‘On the night before the big basketball trial, huh? Not like you, Rich. So when do I finally get to meet this chick?’
‘Friday. I asked her last night if she wanted to hang out with us all on Friday, so, yeah.’
‘Hey, cool. So you’ve got over that attack of nerves or whatever that was all about? That’s cool.’
‘I guess so.’
‘And, I gotta ask, is she bringing friends? Cousins? Cute single neighbours?’
‘Maaan, I hope you’re not gonna tell me she doesn’t know anyone. How the hell are Adam and me meant to get any action if you’re not trawling the girl pool for us? Geez. We’ll both be virgins forever.’
‘Adam asked me about that the other day. About the ball.’
‘The ball? But that’s, what, ten million years away. He’s stressing about that already? I thought he was busy stressing about tonight. He can multistress? Shit. I’m almost impressed.’
‘I told him to relax.’
‘Yeah. Hell, he’s as dateless as I am, and I’m not stressing. And he’s several steps ahead of me anyway, because at least he’s had a friend or two who didn’t have a penis.’
‘You’ve had female friends.’
‘Not cute ones.’ Scott screwed up his nose. ‘Keep in mind, Rich, we’re both counting on you here. Like General Kenobi, you are our only hope.’
‘Dennis doesn’t count. There’s gotta be a quota system he’s in breach of.’ Scott glanced up at Mr Gerrold, who was finally beginning the lesson, and dropped his voice back to the whisper he’d started out with. ‘Besides, he’s not the sharing type.’
‘He can pass a basketball.’
‘Well, if basketballs had vaginas he might not be so generous.’
Richard looked at Scott, shook his head, and turned his attention to the lesson.
The gymnasium was one of the school’s better facilities. The ceiling had recently been repaired, new lighting had been installed, and the windows had been cleaned up. The floor was due for work later in the year. It was old and sun-bleached. Painted courtlines for a half-dozen sports wound over and through each other in a complex knot. The basketball hoops at each end were mounted on sagging iron struts that could in theory be folded in against the wall, but this mechanism never worked. The caretaker insisted on blaming this on ‘monkey idiots hanging from the baskets’. Richard hated that refrain, probably because he was taking it all a bit too personally.
Richard crossed back and forth over the centre line with the ball. He was working on his dribble, figuring that was his weak spot. The gym had ten other bodies in it – just enough for a functional team. Was that gonna be it? Eleven people?
Adam was sitting on a bench next to Viane Vailini. They weren’t talking. Viane, a sixth former, looked only slightly less nervous than Adam, but Richard figured he could handle himself. He’d probably respond well to a bit of coaching.
Ray was engaged in a three-point shootout with James and Tane Peters. Tane had his American accent down, and it seemed he’d got in shape for the trial by memorising coarse dialogue from movies about the ghetto. He seemed to be sinking a lot of shots, as his endless reservoir of abuse continually pointed out. All three of them had confidence. Ray was a natural point guard. They’d all be very useful.
Dennis practised his shooting on the same hoop. He nailed release after release with fluid precision.
Scott was with Lio at the other end of the court playing two on two against Chris Tala and Kelvin Young. Kelvin darted through the defence, laughing as he forced a shot which landed high on the backboard. Lio grabbed the rebound, roaring theatrically. Chris and Lio both had a bit of beef to them, good strong forwards, and Kelvin could back Ray up at the point guard spot. It wasn’t looking too bad.
Richard spotted the P.E. teacher in the doorway. Mr Sheldon put his hands on his hips, his dangling whistle catching the light. He was a short, spry man on the wrong side of forty. Richard liked him well enough, even if he did seem to believe that any uncoordinated youth could become a sportsman if he did enough pushups and had a will to succeed.
Conversation eased as Sheldon entered, and the trialists converged around the bench where Adam and Viane were sitting. When they saw who followed Sheldon into the gym, talking stopped completely.
‘Right, shut up,’ Sheldon said. ‘This is Damon Taylor, from the Hutt Valley Shakers. He’s agreed to coach you lot, which is a real privilege for us. So don’t screw it up by being idiots, all right?’
Damon Taylor was six three with a frame built for quickness. His skin was black, American black like on TV. Everyone noticed that. He wore a tight cap on a shaved head and the logo on his shorts matched the one on his shoes. Richard figured his accent as somewhere central east – Baltimore? He couldn’t tell. He’d never really developed an ear for that stuff before he left the U.S.
‘Thanks, Hamish,’ Damon said. ‘Hey guys. My name’s Damon Taylor. You can call me Damon or Coach, as you like, but when we’re working or competing you always call me Coach. It’ll keep your mind on the game. Now I understand St Francis hasn’t had a basketball team for some years, so we’re gonna have to do some rebuilding here. We’re going into second division competition, all right? That’s a tough one at the moment, don’t be fooled. We play well this year, we’ll look at our options for next year.
‘Now, appreciate this – I’m gonna demand professionalism from you. That means commitment. You got to be ready to go where you need to go. How many we got here? Eleven? We got eleven people. That’s a good squad. And if eleven of you are prepared to come here and practice hard, then you’re all in. So welcome to the team.’
Richard heard Dennis murmur, ‘Good speech.’
Scott whispered agreement. ‘No cue cards.’
Damon glanced at Sheldon, who stuck out his chin and glared at the squad. ‘Well then,’ Mr Sheldon said. ‘There will be a meeting next week to sort out uniforms and all that. I need to sort that out. For now, you lot are in his capable hands. Don’t be idiots. Damon, they’re all yours.’
Damon didn’t miss a beat. ‘All right! Any questions before we get into some drills?’
There was a moment of silence. Richard stood up. ‘No questions, Coach.’
‘In that case, dribbling drill, I want four lines on the baseline…’
The new team got down to work.