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It must have been about two o’clock in the morning when loud banging on the front door awakened me from the little sleep that I got. ‘What the fxck is that?’ I wondered as I scanned the darkness of the bedroom to see if any of my elder brothers were awake. There was no sign of movement. ‘Can someone get that, please?’ I asked to no response. The incessant banging continued as I put on my jeans and, still half asleep, slumbered down the stairs to find out what all the commotion was about. ‘Alright, alright’ I whispered as I reached up to the brass snib and turned it anti-clockwise. As soon as I did the door flew open and I was pushed to the floor banging my head on the bathroom door. I was in a daze but made out the shape of three large policemen in their dark uniforms and heavy boots crashing their way into our house, ignoring me and dashing up the stairs. I couldn’t believe my eyes when one gigantic cop after another came hurling down the stairs and landed in a heap beside me on the hallway floor. At the top of the stairs stood my eldest brother, John with his hands clasped in fists. Christ, I knew that he was a hard man but for fxcksake three of them! He disappeared back into the bedroom and slowly the three policemen got back to their feet. I heard them discussing the odds of 3 to 1 before they plucked up enough courage to re-climb the stairs, albeit somewhat more cagily than the first time. I heard them stop outside of the bedroom door and some quiet words advising him to open the door and come peacefully but there was no response. The policemen’s voices grew louder and then I heard the sound of the door being swung open and then ‘For fuck sake, he’s gone’ one of them shouted in frustration at the sight of an open bedroom window with only darkness beyond. The three giants plodded back down the stairs and as they slinked out of the front door, one of them turned and looked at me still lying in the corner and said ‘you tell that c*nt, we’ll be back for him’. ‘You’d better bring an army’ I thought, trying not to laugh.
I never did discover what had led to our early visit from the Ayrshire Constabulary but the boys in blue became frequent visitors to the Henshaw household, usually due to my brothers being too quick with their fists or showing a lack of respect for other people’s belongings. And yet, when I eventually turned to the police to stop my father beating up my mum for the umpteenth time, they refused to do anything. ‘It’s a domestic’ the officer said. ‘A what?’ I asked. ‘A domestic’ he repeated, ‘there’s nothing we can do’. What kind of civilised society allows a husband to repeatedly beat up his wife, with no recourse to the law? Apparently, the society in which I was living in. Surely if I as a young teenager could see that such bullying was wrong, then the ‘powers that be’ could too. Three of my brothers spent time behind bars because of their violent behaviour. Didn’t anyone see a connection between their actions and those of our father?
Don’t get me wrong, I was no Saint. My pent up anger and frustration was boiling away just below the surface and occasionally if someone said or did something that hurt a raw nerve I’d lose the plot and lash out with my fists. I was lucky though in that the one time that I ended up in court, the lawyer convinced the Sheriff that I had a bright future ahead of me and I was given ten weeks probation. This meant that I had to attend a weekly meeting in a small side office in the local library with some middle-aged, middle-class guy with a beard and a suede jacket. We didn’t actually say too much. He’d ask me how I was feeling and how things were. Ask me if I was happy. I didn’t have a clue as to how I was feeling, I knew that I wasn’t happy though. I’m not sure that I knew what happiness was. I don’t recall ever experiencing it. However, I did know that this guy could recommend that I was put under care, so I lied. I said that everything was fine.
What probably had a major impact on my life and helped to keep me out of borstal was the school starting up a rugby team. It seemed a bit strange at the time not only in the fact that I’d never heard of rugby but also because the initiative came from Mr Archibald, one of the art teachers, rather than one of the P.E teachers. He sent out a message to all the boys in the secondary school and managed to cobble together enough of us to put together the requisite fifteen players. I only knew a few of the lads as most of the players came from the fourth year and were bigger than me but Mr Archibald gave me a chance and invited me along to training. Of course, most of the others had proper rugby boots with studs and I was sliding all over the grass in my baseball boots but the teacher saw enough in my enthusiasm and raw energy to suggest that I could play wing forward or flanker. I hadn’t a clue what playing in that position meant or any of the other weirdly named roles, such as prop; fly half or hooker, but when he told me that it was the number seven jersey I was absolutely buzzing. I didn’t know too much about football either but from what I had seen on our TV, number seven was the most skilful and exciting position to play and was the jersey worn by Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnston the best player that the world had ever seen.
There was a small sports shop in the village, McLeish Sports although they didn’t sell rugby boots they did sell football boots even had a pair which fitted me. I used up some of my savings from working on the farm to buy them. They were by far the dearest thing that I’d ever bought but they turned out to be a great investment. Those boots helped keep me out of trouble and rugby gave me an outlet in which to channel some of that teenage aggression.
After a few weeks, we were informed that we would be playing the first game. Not only our first game but the first game of rugby ever played by the school. Unfortunately, as we didn’t have a home pitch to play on, so we would need to play our games at the home of the opposition, Speir’s School in Beith.
I had never even heard of the school and never been to Beith but the coach hired to take us there only took twenty minutes. It may have only been an eight-mile journey but we had been transported to a completely different world. I looked on in awe as we turned off of the Ayrshire country road and onto a tree-lined driveway through 16 acres of well-tended grounds, with woodland areas, gardens, tennis courts and rugby pitches before reaching the building itself. A large red sandstone building which resembled a country mansion or castle with its imposing tower reaching 100ft into the evening sky.
The dressing rooms reeked of history with long dark wooden benches and old faded framed photos of the school’s successful ‘1st XVs’ decorating the once white walls under a huge inscription declaring “Quad Verum Tutum”. Mr Archibald explained that this was Latin and translated to ‘What is True is Right’. Which still didn’t mean much to me. All that I knew was that for our first ever fifteen to have any success we would have to overcome decades of history and tradition. I was up for that.
I gave it my all. We all did. Tackle after tackle, after tackle we stopped the Old Spierians as the charged at us time after time. After 40 minutes we had a five-minute break and recharged our depleted energy levels with a slice of orange, a drink of water and a few encouraging words from Mr Archibald. In the second half they came at us with renewed vigour, they threw everything at us but we held on and the match finished 0-0. We were all delighted and Mr Archibald punched the air as the referee blew the final whistle. The opposition officials didn’t seem too impressed with either the result or our show of emotions but we had chalked up an enormous moral victory and it was fifteen dirty, bruised but happy young lads from Struantoun that jumped into the white-tiled communal bath in that old dressing room steeped in history.
We enjoyed a cup of tea and some sandwiches with our opposition whilst Mr Archibald was invited into The President’s Room for ‘a wee dram’ before reluctantly boarding the coach to take us home. We sang the only sporting songs that we knew, which consisted of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘It’s a Grand Old Team’ as the bus twisted and turned through the darkness of the countryside.
I was still beaming from ear to ear when I reached home. My father even asked ‘How did you get on?’ ‘We drew 0-0’ I proudly declared. ‘0-0’ he mocked, before bursting into a fit of laughter. ‘Whoever heard of a rugby game finishing 0-0?’ he continued. ‘I never knew that you were such a f*cking expert’ I muttered, as I ran up the stairs with tears running down my face.