THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Tommy lifted his jaded eyes from his desk where he was trying to make some sense of the ink stain he had fashioned there earlier on that week. He knew it was some sort of animal but he wasn't sure which one it was. He gave up, and slowly looked at the calendar on the wall to his right, May 1967, he willed it to move with no success. He shifted his gaze to Miss Shields who with her back to Tommy was still intent on the task of covering the board with, to him at least row upon row of un-decipherable numbers with the odd letter thrown in to cause him even more confusion. He looked across the class at his best mate Joey who was likewise lost in the world of multiplication. It was like a foreign language, or even Chinese as Joey used to say.p Over Miss Shield's left shoulder was the old clock, five minutes to twelve, almost dinner. He shifted his time altering gaze to it with as much success as he had with the calendar minutes before. In fact the harder he tried the more it seemed to be having the reverse affect. Tommy's head began to hurt. Miss Shields much to the annoyance of the class was doing her best to ignore the clock as it slowly tick tocked its way to twelve and the school lunch bell. Tommy glanced over to his mate who was as lost as he was. Old Shieldsy knew what she was doing Tommy thought to himself and it was sausage and mash to-day his favourite, and he didn't want to be left at the back of the dinner queue.

The bell eventually rang but Miss Shields carried on writing, the class sat upright arms folded knowing they could not leave till they had been dismissed. The clock ticked on and Miss Shields kept them waiting. Slowly she turned and savoured the moment, put her well worn piece of chalk on her desk and slowly spoke the two words the whole class had been waiting to hear "class" long pause "dismissed."

There was a mad scramble for the door from all the boys in the class. The girls in an ever more dignified manner brought up the rear. Out through the door they turned left along the corridor, Tommy and Joey were close to the back at this point sitting quite a distance from the door. Another left turn and down four flights of stairs, positions began to change as some of the slower boys lost ground. Across the hall and into the big yard, it was here that Tommy and his small group of mates began to take control as they pushed and barged their way to the front. Through another door and up another single set of stairs. Right turn and there was the queue. Tommy out of breath was now clearly in the lead as they dashed the final yards. Using the incredible gripping power of his green flash pumps he screeched to a halt at the back. The others were not as agile and he was hit by a pile of eight-year-old bodies and propelled into the boy at the back of the queue. The bigger boy, a third year turned and eyed up Tommy who was trying to make himself look feet taller than he actually was. Matty calmly strode up and pushed Tommy, hard, in the chest almost knocking him over. " Youse watch it" As startled as he was by the push Tommy realised in front of this crowd that he had to retaliate or back down. He took the former course of action and pushed Matty back just as hard. " Youse watch it " For a moment the bigger boy stared at him in surprise. This was something he had not bargained for. He pushed back again and Tommy fell into the arms of Joey and the rest of his friends who as one propelled Tommy forward into Matty knocking him in a heap to the floor. Laughter ensued from all as the bully was humiliated in front of all his friends. This caused all sorts of ructions as many of Matty's classmates were pleased with what had happened but had to be seen to be backing up the bully as well as secretly enjoying the moment. Amid all this excitement and confusion Matty picked himself up from the floor with as much dignity as he could master and simply pointed straight at Tommy " Brown's holler four o'clock " and slowly turned and walked away.

A deathly silence ensued as the full force of his words hit home, it lasted for a few seconds before the second and third formers alike broke out into the same one word chant. FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. Tommy slowly plucked out a tattered pink free dinner ticket, paid ones were yellow and filled up his plate with sausage and mash which didn't seem to have the same appeal any more, his appetite had deserted him. Joey who also favoured the odd sausage or two was well made up. Like most of the second and first year kids he really hated Matty and all of his family, but he was an only child and was small for his age. His best mate Tommy however was cock of the class and had even more brothers than Matty did. He was really looking forward to it, if anybody in seconds had any chance of beating him it was Tommy.

The sausage and mash was followed by sponge cake, it came in huge silver trays that the dinner ladies cut into squares with special dinner lady knifes and plonked onto your plate. The custard came in huge vats ladled out onto the cake. The boys mashed the cake and the custard into a red and yellow mass before they ate it. That was the rules with custardy cake. Today Tommy mashed but his heart wasn't in it. He never liked Matty but due to his older brothers he always left him alone, and he was big. But he knew he couldn't back down now that he had been offered out in front of everybody. Turning his attention back to his custardy cake he mashed. After dinner the third and fourth began their usual game of football in the big school schoolyard. There were two playgrounds at the school, the smaller for the infants and the larger for the four junior years one to four. And there were strict rules as to how the space was used. The yard was virtually rectangular at both ends were painted the big goals. These were for the weekends when kids would climb over the walls and use the yard for one big game. Almost at the halfway line the main door and the flight of stairs Tommy and his mates had come out faced each other. They divided the yard neatly into two. One half of the whole yard was used by the third and fourth year boys to play a footy match which lasted the length of the whole school year, this space was jealously guarded by the boys and enforced with a kick or a punch if ever invaded. If a girls two's up ball should happen to accidentally find it's way onto the pitch it was usually hoofed onto the street. The rest of the school split up the yard accordingly. The second year boys bagged the steps thus relegating the firsts to the yard with the girls. The boys stayed to one corner usually playing ollies or nearest the wall and stuff. The girls however tended to stick in smaller groups of friends playing two's up against a wall or maybe skipping with the big school rope. The girls also tended to mix more and anyone could skip or hold the rope if they really wanted too. The girls would also attach hundreds of elastic bands to-gether and by hooking them around their ankles let others jump in and out catching the bands with their feet in an attempt to form intricately woven patterns. And there was usually one or two cissy boys who hung around with the girls and would always be picked last at games lessons. And these were the rules.

Joey was in an exhuberant mood after dinner, it was, as the best mate, his duty to organize and second Tommy at the fight after school. Matty was always picking on him and the other smaller kids, he was big and he had loads of brothers unlike himself. Tommy was a different matter, he was almost as big as Matty and he had loads of brothers, more brothers than Matty could ever have even counting all his cousins. This was going to be a big fight, if he had anything to do with it. And he was soon proved right as Peter came legging it over to see his brother. " Whats up kid " he said to Tommy. " I'm fighting Matty Cole at four on Browns " he replied a little more confidently now, Peter was well pleased. " Yesss" he shouted. " I hate that Billy Cole and now I get to punch his head in" grabbing Tommy in a headlock he rubbed the back of his head wildly before rushing of to rejoin the footy game between the third and fourths. Joey knew why Peter was so pleased. Billy was Matty's older brother in the fourth year and almost as big a bully. Peter though as cock of the school couldn't really do much to him as Billy would never fight him, but now that Matty had offered his younger brother out on Brown's and as Tommy was a year younger than Matty this meant that after the fight Peter could offer Billy out and he had to accept, that was the rules. But it didn't end there. In Archy, the big school, Pete and Tommy had three more brothers. Matty and Billy only had two brothers so that left a brother short. But Matty and Billy did have a cousin in Archy, Kevin Connolly. He was in the top year with their Christy, so Christy could fight Kevin Connolly, Mark could fight Christy Cole and Michael could fight John Cole even though John was a year older than him. As soon as the fights on Browns were sorted then all the other ones could be set up for tomorrow night in the Simmy swings which was where all the senior boys fights were held as that was the rules. But that wasn't the end of it. Matty Cole had another cousin, in the third year of juniors, her name was Margaret and she was a right nutter.

Most of the lads were well scared of her. One day she brought in a pair of scissors and cut all the shoe laces of all the kids in the first year. She then had a go at Maggie Beckett's pig tails until Mr. Blackburn wrestled them of her. She was talking to her only friend Mary when she heard the news about the big fight at four. She began to hatch a plan of her own. She had always hated Tommy's sister Kathleen who was much too good looking for her own good according to Margaret. All that blonde hair and them stupid ribbons she always wore really got on her nerves. But with her brother being cock of the school there wasn't really much that she could do about it, until now. She knew that if Matty and Tommy had a fight then Peter who hated Billy would offer him out and he had to accept, then she as a cousin could offer Kathleen out and she had to accept being Pete and Tommy's sister. And that was the rules. Margaret would finally get a chance to rag them ponytails once and for all. But it didn't end there.p Margaret also had a cousin in third year of Archy whose name was Georgie. Now Georgie had always hated Tommy's brother Christy's best mate Bernie Welsh, had done for years, but as he was Christy's best mate he couldn't do anything about it. But now if Margaret and Kathleen were to fight then as her cousin he could, as Kathleen didn't have a brother or cousin in his year offer Bernie out, as he was Christy's best mate. If you didn't have a brother or a cousin of the same age then best mates counted and he could finally give Bernie the hiding he had promised him for years. And that was the rules. But it wouldn't end there.

Tommy and Matty's fathers both drank in the same pub, The Holy House. Tommy's dad only had a few pints mainly on a Saturday but he also went in on Wednesday's for the darts league. Matty's dad also wanted to be in the team but Alfie Tommy's dad would never pick him. It was not that Alby was a bad player, he wasn't, in fact he was red hot. He was also however a right nark and if he ever got to play Alfie knew eventually there would be blood, buckets of it in fact. That was Alby's nick name on the docks Buckets. So it was decided amongst the lads to give Alby a wide berth when it came to he darts team. Alfie however was almost the complete opposite of his sons, he was a big man but due to a traumatic upbringing had sworn off physical violence and Alby knew it. However if Matty and Tommy were to fight, no matter what way it went then Alby could challenge Alfie and he knew he would never fight him not even for toffee. This meant that Alfie would have to leave the darts team whether he liked it or not. With the big man gone it would be plain sailing for Alby and bad news for the Scotland Road Darts League. But that was also the rules. But worse was to follow.

Margaret's auntie and Kathleen's mam both used Burroughs' Gardens Wash house on a Thursday morning. If Margaret ragged Kathleen's head then Dolly couldn't stand by and let her get away with it. It would be all round the wash house in a matter of hours. She would have to have it out with Margaret's auntie Joyce who was also Dolly's best mate as Margaret's mother had passed and Joyce was the eldest of her aunties. This meant that one of them would have to stop going to the washy on Thursday, in fact they would most probably have to stop speaking al-together. They wouldn't be happy about it but they would have no choice. You see that was the rules.p Tommy sat in his chair watching the clock again. The hands so slow before lunch now seemed to be moving in a blur. Two, three, four ring ring and there was the four o'clock bell already. In the yard the expectant faces of all the second year boys crowded round Tommy as they headed to-wards the holler at the back of the school, which was where all the fights were held. As they turned the corner they saw a slightly smaller group surrounding Matty. They drew closer and a hasty silence fell as the two seconds approached each other and met in the centre of the small patch of waste ground. " Fair fight", " straight up " and that was it settled just as the rules dictated. Tommy and Matty slowly removed their jumpers rolled them into a bundle and laid them carefully on the ground. Turning they slowly began the long lonely journey to the centre of the waste ground as the other boys formed the customary circle around the two tiny combatants. One or two girls eagerly gathered at the margins in order to catch a glimpse of the action. Slowly the chant began in eager expectation FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT.

As the two boys faced each other the rest of the world seemed to shrink away into the far distance. There was for this brief moment in time only one other person in the whole world who really mattered, and he wanted to punch out your lights. There was nothing more important than this one fight, the rest of eternity depended upon it's outcome. Tommy took two steps forward and encouraged by the chants of his friends bunched his hands into two tiny fists of dynamite. He kept repeating the last advice of his best mate in his head, go for his nose he's a bleeder, there'll be blood buckets of it. He focused his gaze on the rather large nose of Matty Cole and took a rather smaller step forward. Matty heard not a sound took as he took a step forward, he tried with no success to swallow, his mouth was dry and he did not like the way Tommy was staring at his nose. Tommy encouraged by the crowd doubled the last step and added another for good measure. He stared up into Matty's eyes and was amazed at what he saw.p Matty's eyes seemed to be filling up, Tommy perplexed by this chanced a half smile. Matty took a step backwards and burst into tears. There was to be no fight, after all. However according to the rules Tommy was declared the winner by default. Paragraph 7, line six article 4. In the event of tears, etc etc. And now…

Margaret was really upset as she could not rag Kathleen's hair. Peter couldn't fight Billy, Christy wallop Kevin, Mark batter Christy, Michael duff up John, Georgie murder Bernie. Alfie could still play darts for the Holy House and Dolly and Joyce could both go to the wash house on Thursday's. And last but not least the Scotland Road Darts League could look forward to another stress free year of competition, and that was how it was.

As that was the rules.