THE PURPLE PATCHCategory: Leisure
“Ma,” said Jackie, “when will I be able to have those new trousers?”
She didn’t look up from her ironing. Instead, her weight slumped down more heavily on Dad’s shirt, as though the question had piled yet another burden on her shoulders.
“After your Dad’s been working a bit,” she said at last. “In October, maybe.”
Jackie ran out into the street.
He threw his rubber ball at the brick end of the house with a kind of ferocious determination. October was a long way off. Too long before he could be rid of the patch.
It was a neat patch, only about two inches square, in the seat of his trousers. But it was purple. When he had gone in home and said: “Ma, I’ve worn a hole in my britches,” she had patched it with the only bit of material handy… a piece of her old purple coat.
Again and again he threw the ball at the end of the house and snatched at it with both hands each time it flew back at him. In October he could say goodbye to the purple patch, maybe. Meanwhile it was there for people to see. Those who didn’t matter and those who did. Like Penny Dale, the girl with soft yellow hair, who went to the snooty school on the hill.
Somebody came up the street and threw a paper dart at him. It was Jenner’s kid.
“Going to the sports, Jackie?” he asked.
Jackie threw the paper dart back at him, then aimed his ball at the house again.
He said: “No, Jenner, I don’t think so.u
“There are prizes ” Jenner said. “Seven and six and hall a crown first and second.”
Jackie kept on aiming his ball, but he was thinking just as hard as he was throwing.
“All the kids in town are off there,” Jenner went on.
Jackie thought: Maybe if I could get a prize, I could buy those britches now,,and save Ma all the worry, too.
He said: “You have to pay, don’t you?”
“Only a tanner.”
“Only!” Jackie’s voice was a faint mumble. “It might as well be a blinkin’ quid.”
‘Til give you threepence for that ball.”
“That wouldn’t be enough.”
“And another threepence for your burning glass.”
Jackie thought about it. After a while he said: “You’re a swindler, Jenner.” Then he thought about it again. Ten minutes later they were on their way to the sports, Jenner with the ball bulging in his pocket and the burning glass gleaming in the sun, Jackie feeling the sixpence go moist from the sweat on his fingers. Jenner with his white running shoes and clean drill shorts, Jackiewith his battered crepe sandals and his brown trousers and his purple patch.
There were more kids at the sports than Jackie had ever seen. He knew he was about the scruffiest on view. For many weeks he had thought of going in for something, but just for the thrillx>f trying to win. He had put off going because of the purple patch… because he would feel all the time that everyone was staring at him. Now he was running just for the sake of trying to get rid of it.
“First race!” the man with the megaphone yelled. “Boys’ 70 yards flat!”
Jackie handed over his sixpence and lined up next to Jenner and the rest of them.
He tried too hard at the sprint. He tried to make his legs go quicker than they could, straining himself to the limit. But he beat Jenner into second place and collected half a crown in his trembling hand.
“Event Two! A Thread-the-Needle race!” the fat man in charge shouted through his megaphone.
Girls who had ignored Jackie before now crowded round to try and persuade him to be a partner. Penny Dale was there in the background, wearing a smooth white blouse above a plaid skirt. Her yellow hair, warm in the sunlight, was tied behind her head with a bright red ribbon. Still panting from the flat race, Jackie began to wish that Penny might be his partner. No luck. A bold girl called Helen Firman grabbed his arm and steered him to the starting-line. Then he saw that Penny and Jenner had paired off for the race.
Jackie put his hand down unobtrusively to the purple patch, and felt glad that no one seemed to have made it a target for conversation so far. The feel of the stitches around the patch made him grit his teeth. If he could win this race he’d have ten bob…
Bold-eyed Helen went to the far end of the course. She held her needle ready. Jackie licked the piece of thread he’d been given until it came to a fine point. A whistle blew, and he ran like the wind. He was the first boy to reach a partner. Helen held the needle steady, though she giggled and goaded him on. But he couldn’t get his hand steady, he was so excited. The end of the thread bent against the needle.
“Why did I have to pick anyone so clumsy?” Helen hissed.
The pair next to them had threaded their needle and an auburnhaired girl streaked down the course to finish first. Helen was last. She walked away in disgust without saying any more to Jackie. A group of other girls laughed when he wandered slowly back with his hands thrust deep in his pockets.
The last race Jackie could go in for was the Wheelbarrow Race — his last clance for a big prize.
This time, though, none of the girls wanted to pair off with him. Helen staked her claim on Jenner this race because he’d helped his partner into second place in the Thread-the-Needle event. As he looked around, it seemed as though his heart had to fight to keep going. You had to crawl along on your hands in the Wheelbarrow Race, with a girl behind you holding your legs and pushing you along. But there was no one. No one, he thought, to help him get the money for those new trousers.
So that’s how Penny saw him, looking dejected and alone.
“Like to help a lady in distress?” she asked shyly.
His face brightened in an instance, but he said: “You could have who you want for a partner.”
iVNo,” Penny said, “I’m on my own.”
Suddenly, crowding into his feeling of bewildered joy, came the thought of the purple patch. He pictured Penny holding his legs behind, pushing him along… and staring at the purple patch. He could imagine her disgust.
His voice was desperate. “I can’t. I’m a duffer at sport.”
“Don’t let me down, Jackie, please! Look, they’re getting ready to start now!”
In a daze, he went with her to the starting-line.
“I’ve never won once, in all the races I’ve been in for,” he protested weakly.
But the fat man came along and hoisted Jackie’s legs up for Penny to hold, then yelled in a loud, booming voice: “Ready! Off!”
Jackie forgot why he had come to the sports. He stopped thinking of Ma, and Jenner, and Helen Firman, and the seven-and-sixpenny prizes. The one big thought that was choking his mind was that Penny was in a position to look down at the seat of his trousers — and at the purple patch.
His hands padded forward. They sent him over the warm turf at a hectic rate. He had only one aim — to get to the other end of the course as quick as was humanly possible. The sooner he was there, the less time Penny would have for noticing the patch. He was only vaguely conscious of the tight grip she had on his knees, and the way she struggled on gamely behind. With his visions blurred in the frenzy, he scarcely noticed that they were leaving most of the other pairs behind. His breathing was violent. Coarse grass and sharp flints made his hands raw. The blood ran to his head.
But he kept going.
With the spirit of a leaping salmon at the end of a sportsman’s line, he kept going, up the slope at the end of the course, and under the finishing-tape.
“We won, Jackie, we won!” Penny was gasping as he sat down on the turf, filling his lungs with air.
And he saw that there was no look of disdain on her face, only admiration.
(The Purple Patch by D. Bateson)