Simon’s Skill (In which a boy discovers his metier.)

skater

Simon had little to complain of, enjoying good health and a successful and rewarding career. He fell into his line of work in a most unusual manner – he followed his father’s advice. At first glance this may seem unremarkable, but consider: although the giving of advice is generally considered essential to good parenting an overwhelming body of evidence points to its almost complete inutility.

Not so, however, with Simon Porter. His father, an undistinguished individual ignorant of the value of restraint in the dispensing of unsolicited advice, offered at a crisis in Simon’s young life a single item of counsel which the boy remembered and followed, prospering in consequence.

It happened as follows. Simon was an active boy and an only child whose enrolment at school put an end to years of aching solitude. He rejoiced in the novelty of schoolmates, joining in every activity with a will. He loved to run, jump, climb trees and throw and catch balls. To love something, alas, is not necessarily to excel and young Simon had legs of lead. For the first few years of infant school this was not an issue. True, it made him an easy catch in games of tag but since Simon innocently thought that getting tagged and becoming ‘it’ was rather the point of the game he failed to identify being slow on his feet as a disadvantage.

Until, that is, his first school sports day. With a mind to protect the tender sensibilities of the very young, Simon’s school restricted participation in competitive events to those over nine years of age. Having passed that milestone he enrolled eagerly in the foot race and gave it his all, cheered on from the sidelines by his father Eddie. Alas, the encouragement failed to prevent Simon crossing the finishing line several long and painful moments behind all the other competitors, including a number of girls. For the first time in his life he experienced the humiliation of conspicuous public failure, and was distraught.

In a flood of tears, he was taken aside by his father.

“Don’t worry about it son,” said Eddie, a comforting arm around the stricken child’s shoulders. “Look at those seagulls. Lovely aren’t they? You know what – they can’t run for peanuts but boy, can they fly!”

“So what?” wailed Simon, “I can’t run and I can’t fly either. I’m no good at anything.”

“That’s not true, son,” replied Eddie. “You’re getting quite good at cricket.”

This was true to a degree. Fairly well co-ordinated, and eager, he occasionally bowled a respectable ball.

“No,” he sobbed through a fresh round of tears. “I want to be best at something.”

This, on Simon’s record to date, was an unlikely proposition and both Simon and Eddie knew it. But Eddie was of stout stuff, and not to be put off.

“Son,” he said, “one day you will find something you’re best at. And when that day comes, remember what I told you, work at that thing and you’ll be a match for anybody.”

Eddie was a bus driver, and Simon loved the days when his father drove the school bus.

“You’re the best bus driver in the world. One day, I want to be the best bus driver too.”

“No, Simon old chap. I’m sure you can do better than driving a bus. You just keep your chin up, keep trying and watch out for that day when you find that something you’re really good at.”

“Do you really think so Dad?”

“Son, I know so.”

Simon loved his Dad, Eddie loved his boy, and Simon believed him. For a time he evinced a certain optimistic state of alert, only to be brutally brought low by his first organised game of football. Too slow for the paddock, he was judiciously placed in goal where he failed to stop a single ball, several of which were not, it must be said, travelling at any great speed. He slipped back into morose pessimism.

And there he might have stayed, were it not for the day that Michael Drummond turned up at school carrying, and for short bursts, attempting to ride upon, a brand new skateboard, one glorying in fat, multi-hued composite wheels, glittering aluminium trucks and dazzlingly artistic 3D decals on both sides. Simon blazed with desire. Something, something entirely convincing inside told him that here was a thing he could master. As he watched Drummond clumsily wave his arms about, toppling this way and that, the tides in Simon’s belly flowed like oil; he felt his weight shift, his feet change position. He knew, he absolutely knew he could do that.

He also knew better than to ask Drummond for a turn. Michael Drummond was a rich kid, at Simon’s school for an interval while he waited for a place at a high-toned public school. At the age of ten he had already learned to ape his father’s contempt for the working classes and would have relished the opportunity to mock Eddie’s inability to provide Simon with the plenty with which his, Drummond Junior’s, life was furnished.

Simon eyed the skateboard thoughtfully, wheels beginning to turn in his head. Today was a cricket day and Simon had his cricket bag beside him. He looked at the skateboard. He turned to his cricket bag. And back to the skateboard. Yes. Without question, the lusted-after plank on wheels was of a size to fit safely, with no tell-tale bulges, inside the bag.

Before the morning class session Drummond had resentfully submitted to the order to leave his skateboard in his cubbyhole in the hall, where a wall of open compartments served the school as a repository for personal items. Cricket bags, balls of various shapes and sizes, umbrellas and all the paraphernalia for which a wealthier school would have provided individual lockers were stored temporarily in full view. Students were strongly discouraged from bringing items of value to school. Occasionally there were thefts; less often, culprits caught and punished.

It all went very smoothly. Simon had a tender heart and drew heavily on mitigating circumstances to soothe his conscience. Firstly, only three weeks ago the odious Drummond had put on a show with his brand new pair of semi-pro inline skates, and rode to school on a feather-light and insanely costly carbon-fibre 25-speed mountain bike when not being chauffeured in his mother’s enormous new Range Rover. Possessing neither skates, bike, skateboard nor indeed any means of transport, Simon felt instinctively that here was an imbalance in the distribution of goods requiring correction in the interest of producing a more ordered state of things in the universe. Secondly it was due to no virtue on Drummond’s part nor lack of it on Simon’s own that Drummond’s father did something in the City which Drummond seemed unable to describe but which placed at his disposal enormous quantities of currency, whereas Simon’s father performed the essential but poorly rewarded service of driving a bus.

At twenty minutes to two, Simon, composing his features into a picture of mournful discomfort, raised his hand and asked to be excused. En route to the toilet he laid hands on the object of desire, slipped it between his cricket pads and drew the zipper tight. He then proceeded to pass a pleasant quarter hour in the cubicle waving his hand around in the imagined graceful arcs and athletically performed manoeuvres of a skateboard, an activity he found oddly satisfying.

Pausing at the washbasin to splash his face with cold water, Simon returned to class clutching his stomach and wearing an expression of acute unease.

“Please miss, I’ve just been sick and my tummy hurts. I think there was something wrong with my fish sandwich.”

“Oh dear,” replied the pliable Miss Spencer, “you should see the nurse.”

“Please Miss, no. She can’t do anything. I want to go home to bed, with a bowl.”

For emphasis, Simon gave a convincing rendition of a violent spasm, grabbing his stomach and bending over to dribble a generous amount of saliva onto the floor.

The fastidious teacher took two quick steps backwards, knocking over a large flask containing a live tadpole. “Oh goodness! Well, is your mother home?”

“I … think … so,” he replied, any residual guilt at deceiving the kindly Miss Spencer quelled by his resentment at her referral to a mother who had not been at home for more than two years.

“Then run along, and get better soon.”

“Yes miss. Thank you miss.”

“Alice, would you fetch the mop and bucket and Kevin, quickly,…”

Simon closed the door behind him, made for his locker, looped his arms through the handles of his cricket bag and set off for home, his heart beating wildly in anticipation brought on by the noticeably increased weight of the bag on his back.

A lesser spirit would have succumbed to temptation and had his feet on the skateboard once around the first corner. But Simon, made of sterner stuff, maintained the stomach-clutching and face-pulling act all the way home.

His father’s split shifts often found him at home during the school day, but this too Simon had reckoned with, timing his performance to coincide with his father’s departure for the afternoon roster.

Once inside, Simon fetched their small stepladder and took it upstairs to the spare room of the miniscule semi-detached he and Eddie called home. Mounting it, he lifted a faded cream ceiling panel, whose loose state he had discovered with a broom handle a month earlier, and slid the skateboard into hiding. Then he carried the ladder back downstairs and locked it away in ‘the shed’, a prefabricated tin box which stood at the bottom of the minute patch of weeds and bare earth known, without irony, as ‘the garden’.

Then he made himself a peanut butter and banana sandwich – a big one – and settled down to a pleasant afternoon reading comics, watching television and standing on a cushion, left foot forwards, imitating skateboarding moves.

For credibility’s sake Simon feigned sickness and remained at home the following day, exercising considerable discipline in leaving the skateboard in its place of concealment and staying indoors.

He was, as expected, identified as Suspect Number One and subjected on his return to school to a corrosive but futile grilling in the headmaster’s study. All accusations he countered with stalwart pleas of innocence and injured demands for a search of his home. He even withstood the gambit of being informed that his offence had been captured on CCTV, thanks to his furtive but thorough examination of the hall during the lunch break preceding his crime.

Simon was discomfited by the unexpected arrival of his father but his fears were misjudged. Eddie quickly grew belligerent at the disturbance of his routine in order to see his son browbeaten for the crime of becoming ill. Yes, the boy had looked poorly and was in bed with a bowl when Eddie looked in on him after his shift. Yes, he had clearly been unwell the next day. No, Simon did not have a skateboard and certainly not an expensive new one.

Eddie’s ire doubled when his demand to see the incriminating footage was countered by the transparent untruth that the equipment had unfortunately malfunctioned on the day in question. Feeling cornered, the headmaster resorted to a meaningful nod in the direction of the uncomfortable Miss Spencer, who meekly taxed Eddie on the matter of Simon’s lie about his mother being home. With a fierce glare Eddie demanded, “Why do you think?” at which the poor woman turned scarlet and fell silent, bringing the interview to an embarrassed close.

The victim attempted a crude stand-over, only to be dragged off and scragged by Simon’s classmates, not from any sense of fair play but from a general loathing of the boastful twerp. Nor was Simon’s defence the result of any conviction as to his innocence; on the contrary, although he remained resolutely silent he garnered a certain regard as the presumed agent of Drummond’s well-deserved deprivation.

Simon bided his time with exemplary patience. The only unfortunate aspect of the affair was the awkward necessity of lying to his father. This last shadow dissipated on the evening following the interview.

“So who is this Drummond kid, anyway?” inquired Eddie over their meal of fish and chips.

“He’s a rich dweeb, nobody likes him. He’s always turning up with new stuff just to show off. He’s got new skates, a wanky bike and his own iPhone. And an iPad, Nike trainers, the lot. His Mum brings him to school in this huuuu-uuuge car, and anyway, he’s only here for the rest of the term. Then he’s going to some big-time public school.”

Simon’s over-egging of the pudding did not escape the wily bus driver’s notice.

“Hmmm. Oh yeah? So you did nick it.”

“Yeah.”

“Where’ve you got it?”

“Hidden. Safe.”

“Don’t get caught with it, will you, for God’s sake.”

“No way!”

“Fair enough.” And with that, Eddie went back to reading the paper.

And so it was three weeks later that Simon boarded a bus, skateboard in the otherwise empty cricket bag, travelling to another part of the city where a park with ramps, bowls and rails attracted skaters of every size, colour and ability.

After half an hour’s studious observation, Simon set the treasured wheels on the ground, tentatively placed a foot in the correct position and pushed. A sublime compound of freedom, power and – at last – speed infused his being. His instinct had not deceived him – he was born to skate. A mere two hours later he basked in a round of applause and friendly overtures from other skaters upon executing and landing an Ollie, a beginner’s feat but even so one which usually requires days and even weeks of practice to achieve.

As he boarded the bus home, legs aching, bloody grazes on his knees and hands but with a heart full of joy, Simon inwardly thanked his father. He soon graduated to membership of the park’s circle of serious skaters, devotees of a sport whose top exponents are able to earn substantial sums by way of demonstrations, competitions and sponsorship deals.

Eddie Porter had been right after all. Simon took his advice, found his forte and went on to enjoy a prosperous and satisfying career.

Simon Porter at the age of thirty was one of London’s most secretive, discriminating and successful thieves.

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