I'd been asking Julia for ages to take me to the park.
"Go on, Julia," I said. "You promised last week and today's Saturday."
She was at the kitchen table, looking out the window, drinking tea and eating a piece of toast.
"We can go up to the Recreation Ground. It's not far. And the weather's perfect."
She put her mug down.
"Let me finish my breakfast," she said. "Then we'll see," and she looked at her watch and then stared out of the window to where the trees in the garden were swaying and bending back and forth in the wind.
It was gone one o'clock already so I went in to watch the rest of Football Focus. There was a special report from Bodymoor Heath. Villa had made a great start to the season and were top of the table and now everyone was taking an interest in us. I settled down on the settee to watch the players in training bibs knocking the ball around and shouting across the training ground. It was windy there too. They'd have to keep the ball on the deck in those conditions.
In the kitchen I heard Julia push back her chair and get up from the table. Then I heard her pick up the telephone in the hallway.
"…he's been in charge at Villa Park only since August but already there have been some very big changes…"
"Come on then. Are we going or what?"
I looked round and she was at the door with her jacket on all ready to go.
"Where is it then?"
"I'll go and get it," I said and ran up to my room to get the kite.
We walked to the park and as soon as we were out of our area, Julia produced a packet of cigarettes from inside her jacket and lit one of them, stopping to cup the match in her hands. I knew she smoked, they were left in her jacket sometimes, but I'd never actually seen her do it before. From the way she sucked in and blew out the smoke she seemed to enjoy it but when it was nearly finished she began taking little sips at it, one after the other before flicking the butt into the road, as if suddenly disgusted.
After a bit of a walk about we found a good spot at the park where the wind was strong but not too gusty. I trusted Julia's judgement as she seemed to be taking it seriously. Then we opened the box and laid out the materials and the instructions on the ground. It was schematic and fairly straightforward; only the strings were a bit more complicated as they were for steering it and you had to make sure they wouldn't get tangled up. When it was ready and all laid out on the grass I couldn't believe it but it was nearly as big as me, but then I'd only ever seen them flying before in the distance, not close up. Lifting it, the fibreglass struts and the thick plastic, it seemed more like some kind of flying machine than a toy, and there must have been hundreds of metres of string!
"Looks good," said Julia and, although it was lying flat on the ground, every now and again it began to tug in the wind as though it was trying to get away by itself.
Julia took the controls first and I held the kite. We had to wait for the right moment and when it came she gave the signal and I launched it into the air. It took a few goes before it really got going but then it was flying for real, pulling hard on the strings. Julia got the measure of it and then started doing tricks – loop-the-loops, bringing it down low, skimming the ground then sending it back up into the sky like a rocket. Then I tried. First she stood behind me and held my hands, doing the moves for me till I began to get a feel for it. Then I began to take control, pulling back on the left then the right, making it go this way and that, paying out the string bit by bit until it seemed that it might disappear completely. It was fun. There were other fliers around – fathers with sons, some with box kites, but theirs were small and flimsy looking in comparison to ours. In America, I'd heard, there were enthusiasts who took kite flying very seriously and had even interfered with the flight paths of aeroplanes, reaching incredible altitudes using reels of piano wire instead of string.
"Right," said Julia, all of a sudden, "You're on your own now," and behind me I heard her coat rustling as she began waving to somebody. There were a few people in the carpark now milling around.
"A friend of mine's here," she said.
The friend was on a motorbike.
"Wait there a minute," she said and as he parked up she ran over to meet him. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen Julia run anywhere. I was concentrating on keeping the kite up in the air but as they approached I could see that he was older than her and that he hadn't shaved.
"This is my little brother Paul," she said. "Paul, this is Wayne."
"Alright, mate. You're going great guns there, aren't y'?" He spoke with a heavy accent, looking up at the kite and then at me, smiling, almost laughing and I wasn't sure if he was embarrassed or making fun of me. They both watched me while I displayed my newfound mastery and when it crashed Julia played the helper's role, untangling the strings and launching it for me as I grew in confidence. After a while, though, I saw Wayne give her a nudge with his elbow and Julia mouthed him an 'alright'.
"We're going to have a bit of a walk, Paul," she said. "I'll be over there," and she pointed to the paler coloured long grass stretching away towards the golf course.
"Ok," I said.
"Have fun," Wayne added.
They headed off and she put her arm around him and leant her head on his shoulder and he put his hand inside her back jeans pocket. When the kite crashed I knelt down to fix the struts which had come loose and untangle the string. With some effort I managed to get the kite into the air again, first pulling it up into a semi-vertical position and then yanking back hard on the strings when a good gust of wind came along. I was managing to keep it up now for long spells at a time but when it crashed it was difficult to re-launch it every time without another person to help and in the end I decided to call it a day and sat down on the grass.
The wind was getting stronger now and if anything it looked as if there might be a storm. Time was getting on too and I wondered what would be happening at Villa Park. I wanted to be at home listening to it on the radio. For a while I watched the other fliers but it was beginning to get cold and most people had gone or were heading home.
In the distance at the entrance I could see three figures circling each other on bikes. Then they changed direction. They began to get closer and I saw they were a bit older. Now they were definitely heading for me. I decided to pack up the kite while I waited for Julia. "Oi," one of them shouted, still some way off. "Oi, give us a go on the kite will y'." Then when they'd come to where I was on my knees and shoving everything into the box they didn't get off but started circling me instead on their BMXs, all hunched up in ski jackets, their track-suited knees going up and down. There was a strong smell of cigarettes and one of them was chewing noisily on violet-coloured sweets with his mouth open. I knew their faces.
"I can't. I have to go home now," I said, "my sister's over there," and I pointed to the long grass.
"Where?" their spokesman said, "there ain't no one." Then they stopped circling. "What school are y'? You ain't Lakey," he said.
"Saint Peter's," I said.
"Yeah. Oi seen 'im before," spoke up one of the acolytes. "You're the goalie, aren't ye?" and I said that I was. I remembered they'd been hanging around the playing fields during a cup match. One of our teachers had to stand by the goals all through the game to protect us.
"Saint Peter's is a strawberry team," he said, "strawberry shit," and he coughed up a gob of spit and lobbed it on to the ground near me. Then,
"Shall we 'ave 'im?" he proposed to the spokesman and the other who had remained mute until then.
"Or shall we 'ave the kite?"
By now I'd put everything in and closed the box even if not properly and I decided to go but not to run. I stood up and with the kite box under my arm I headed at a fast walk first for the entrance where I thought there would be adults for sure. They didn't move first but then I turned round and saw they were following me on their bikes. I realised it was too far to run and then as the ringleader came whizzing past I felt the first heavy spit land on the back of my head. Then I heard another one, "my turn now", he said, "we'll all 'ave a go," and he began to accelerate.
I changed direction and started to run, but this time towards the long grass. They couldn't follow me there with their bikes. They'd have to leave them and I didn't think they'd risk it. Ahead of me, the long grass shimmered and rippled with every gust. It was over knee height and I had to wade through it like it was water. On the wind, I thought I could hear voices and laughing - Julia's voice maybe. She couldn't be far away and I went as fast as I could towards the sound.
When I thought it was safe I stopped and looked around. Now that I was standing still I noticed my legs were shaking. Were they gone? It was hard to know what direction I'd come from now and where Julia might be. I thought about calling out her name but the wind was blowing right into my face and when it gusted it was even hard to breathe. Then a gust laid the grass low so that for a second, up ahead, I could just make out a figure: dark, perhaps lying down. I kept going. It had to be her but as I approached I couldn't hear a sound and then I stopped. I couldn't see Julia at all - not her face, that is - only the long grass swaying and the dark mass of a black leather jacket and my older sister's hands moving slowly up and slowly down along its length.