This was his first time going to a shopping center with just Dad. Even though the shopping center was near their home, Mam never went here. Dad said this place was good enough. It was dark, and the car park was nearly empty. The boy walked quickly, eager to keep close to Dad as they passed a group of glaring teenagers idling near the entrance.
Inside, many of the shop units were vacant, and shopkeepers were pulling down shutters on the others. In a corner near the toilets, the boy spotted a small elephant amusement ride. The blue elephant had a friendly, wide smile. Flaking paint meant he had large patches of white on his face and body. Despite being too old for these rides, the boy felt sorry for the lonely elephant. But such thoughts were soon abandoned when the boy saw the sports store was still open.
Earlier in the year, Mam had promised the boy she would get him a new soccer jersey if he passed his summer school exams. When the boy passed the exams, he told Dad about the promise, but it took Dad many weeks to bring him to the store. It often took Dad a long time to do things. After the teacher wrote a note home last week saying the boy’s hair was too long, Dad said he would definitely bring the boy for a haircut. Yet Dad stayed in bed most of the day and when he got up he didn’t feel well. He said the haircut would happen next week.
Only a few bodies roamed the cavernous sports store. The glare of fluorescent lights and smell of leather were reassuringly familiar to the boy. An array of soccer jerseys were bunched together on racks, covering one of the walls. Mouth agape, the boy’s eyes scanned the colors, seeking the purple and white of his team. Dad said he spotted the jersey. It wasn’t the right one. The soccer team the boy liked was not performing well lately, so the jersey was not a popular item.
Dad had asked the boy why he didn’t follow a better team. The boy said his team would come good soon. The team was playing on television right now, but the boy couldn’t watch it as they didn’t have the channel anymore. The boy had asked Dad if they could watch the match live in the pub as they did before, but Dad said he didn’t want to go to the pub today. Instead, they planned on watching the highlights at home later.
Digging through a mixed assortment of jerseys on a lower rack, the boy eventually uncovered the colors of his team. “Got it,” he yelled. Dad bent over to help pull it out from the back.
As Dad hauled out the jersey, a security man approached. Dressed in a black jacket and black pants, he stood over Dad and watched as the jersey’s hanger got caught on the rack. The security man was much bigger than Dad and had a bald head and goatee beard.
“Wouldn’t buy that if I were you,” he said to Dad.
Startled, Dad turned around. “Oh, why?”
“They’re getting hammered.”
“Ah, no. Really?”
“Two goals down after only ten minutes.”
They stood in silence. Dad and the security man stared at the jersey as if it had suddenly caused offense. The purple and white stripes clashed with the solid red and blue of the surrounding jerseys. The security man chewed his gum rapidly, making a squelchy noise. He stood around for a while before wandering off, bringing some relief to the boy. Dad studied the jersey’s tag, eyes narrowed, convinced that whatever the price, it was too much.
The boy grabbed the jersey. He held it over his torso. It looked a bit small. They both examined the size: “Child – XL.” “You probably need the small adult size,” said Dad. Clasping the jersey tightly, the boy rummaged through the racks. Dad joined in. Their elbows brushed against each other as they flicked through the hangers. The searching became more frantic.
Dad grunted while pulling aggressively at the jerseys. He stopped and looked for a store assistant, but there was none within view. “Let’s see that jersey again,” he said to the boy. “Hold it up.”
The boy was wearing a sweater, making sizing difficult to judge.
“Mam always made me try things on,” said the boy. “Do you think I need to?” His eyes were wide with uncertainty.
Dad paused. He knew that the boy should try it on. But he also knew what the outcome would be: the boy would go home empty handed, marking another broken promise.
“I think it looks fine,” said Dad. The boy smiled.
After Dad paid for the jersey, he presented the glossy white bag to the boy. The boy immediately looked inside, confirming that the jersey was there. On the walk back to the car the boy broke into a skip, telling Dad that he couldn’t wait to wear it. He even forgot to look at the lonely elephant.
On the drive home, the boy said that his team could still win their match, despite what the security man had said. Buying the jersey would bring the team good luck, predicted the boy. Dad told him not to get his hopes up.
When the car was at traffic lights on the main road, Dad drove into the left lane. He put on the indicator to turn left, even though it was not the way home.
“Where are we going?” asked the boy.
Dad turned off the indicator and tried to go back into the right lane. Eyebrows furrowed, he looked agitated. Other cars blocked him from entering the lane. “Damn it anyway,” said Dad, putting back on the indicator to go left. The tires screeched as the car moved quickly around the corner.
Dad stopped the car in front of a row of shops. “Just give me a second,” he said when leaving the car. The boy thought Dad might be going to buy the newspaper, and hopefully some chocolate. Instead, Dad ran into the off-license. He soon emerged with a brown paper bag. The boy knew what was inside. Dad got in the car, put the bag under his seat and asked the boy what he wanted from the chipper. The boy yelped in delight.
When they got home, the boy ran upstairs and tried on the jersey. A minute later he was back down to show Dad. The jersey was tight, but to Dad’s surprise, it looked okay. Dad laughed in relief. The boy laughed too. Dad then realized that the boy would need an adult size soon, and the idea of spending more money on a jersey irritated him. He tried to minimize those thoughts and took a sip of his drink.
That night they sat in front of the television eating their burgers while watching the soccer highlights. The boy’s team ended up scoring two goals to draw the match, resulting in loud cheers in the room. As the night wore on, Dad started to talk very loudly. He let the boy stay up late; later than the boy had ever stayed up. It was after midnight when Dad held his bottle of drink up in the air. There was a small amount remaining.
“Better not finish it all,” he said. “Sunday tomorrow, so I’ll keep a bit. Just in case.” He made an exaggerated wink at the boy.
After that, it was time for bed. Dad staggered when he stood up. The boy ran over and grabbed Dad’s hand. The boy was very tired, but he didn’t mind helping Dad. Dad’s hand was big and warm. The boy squeezed the hand tighter as they navigated the stairs.