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It Might Have Been Magritte

Derek bounced his soccer ball up and down while he watched Peter take a stick of chalk out of his pocket and start to draw the outline of a goal on the wall at the end of the alley. “Hurry up,” he yelled. “You only need three lines – two vertical goal posts supporting a horizontal bar at the top.” Peter gave him the finger, but otherwise ignored him completely.

Derek went back to bouncing his ball, but that soon got boring. So while he waited for Peter to finish his drawing, he looked around him to see what was what. On his right a disappointingly high wall cut off his view. But on his left, a low fence surrounded the rather unkempt back garden of a posh looking house. The lawn was full of weeds and clearly it hadn’t been mowed in ages. The flowerbeds, if you could call them that, were full of drooping and dying plants that were clearly in need of a good watering. The house had several windows overlooking the garden. They all had the tell-tale deeply opaque blackness that characterised the reverse view of Shaw Glass. Derek nodded to himself. That would explain why the back garden was so badly maintained. Who needed a neat garden when you had Shaw Glass to look at?

“I’m ready now,” called Peter.

Derek looked up. Peter had sketched a goal that was maybe half an inch wider than his own body and which was only as tall as his shoulders. He dominated the tiny space, crouching in front of it, almost completely obscuring it from view, arms spread wide ready to intercept anything that Derek sent speeding his way. “Oh come on,” said Derek, “call that a proper goal? It’s far too small. It’s worse than useless!”

Peter grinned at him. “I’m the goalie,” he said. “It’s my goal so it’s my rules, and therefore I decide how big it’s supposed to be. Just me, nobody else. Come on, give it your best shot!”

Derek decided he’d just have to make the best of a bad situation. After all, what did he have to lose? He set his ball down and retreated from it a little way. He carefully calculated all the angles, choosing his target with care then he took a deep breath, ran up to the ball and kicked it as hard as he could. The ball swerved through the air towards the goal and Peter reached out ready to embrace it. But, as Derek had hoped he would, he misjudged the angle of approach. The ball slipped past his grasping arms and hit him hard right on the tip of his nose. Then it dropped to the ground, rolled slowly towards the wall and kissed it gently right in the middle of the goal. A perfect goal.

Peter screamed and slumped down to the ground, cupping his head in his hands as if trying to catch the blood that was gushing in a fountain from his nose. “Yes!” shrieked Derek, punching the air with delight. “Derek leads one nil! Even tiny goals are no match for his superlative ball skills!” He ran around in circles waving his arms in the air to the delighted roars of an imaginary crowd then he patted himself on the back and tried to give himself a kiss. But that didn’t work too well so he stopped and the imaginary crowd fell silent.

“You bastard,” moaned Peter thickly. “I’ll get you for that.” He picked up the ball and sent a vicious drop kick screaming towards Derek. But he must have been distracted by the pain of his smashed nose and the blood that was smearing his face because he got the direction completely wrong. Derek watched in fascination as the ball shot over the fence, crossed the dilapidated lawn and landed unerringly right in the centre of one of the black windows. The glass shattered and the ball disappeared inside the house.

“Oh, Peter,” said Derek, laughing a little, “You’ve really done it now. That windows was made out of Shaw Glass and you know how expensive that stuff is. You’ll have to pay over all your pocket money for the next three thousand years to get the thing replaced.”

Peter sniffed and wiped some blood off his face with his sleeve. “Probably,” he said miserably. But then he brightened. “It was a good kick though, wasn’t it?” he asked. “Right on target and full of force. Did you hear the really cool noise it made when the window shattered?”

“Yes,” agreed Derek. “I enjoyed it.”

The door of the house opened and an old man with straggly grey hair and a long white beard came out. He was holding the football in his hands. “Which one of you bastards broke my window?” he shouted.

Derek pointed at Peter and Peter pointed at Derek. “He did!” they both said in unison.

The old man looked them over. “Derek,” he said. “And Peter. I might have known. Well you’d better both come inside and see just what damage you did.”

Derek and Peter looked at each other again. “It’s only Mr Atkinson,” said Derek. “We’ve known him for ever.”

“I’ve got lemonade and chocolate biscuits,” said Mr Atkinson.

“What could possibly go wrong?” asked Peter.

Derek shrugged and they followed Mr Atkinson into his house. He took them into the living room and put the football down on a chair. Then he shuffled off to the kitchen, presumably to start dispensing lemonade and chocolate biscuits. Derek’s gaze was drawn inexorably to the Shaw Glass windows. Each was showing a different scene. One showed a forest glade. There was a squirrel crouched on a tree branch. It was nibbling a nut. Another window displayed a coastline somewhere with waves lapping on to a beach. The third window overlooked a road with traffic bustling to and fro. It was raining, and across the road a queue of miserable looking people were lined up at a bus stop. As Derek watched, a bus pulled up, obscuring his view of the people. When the bus pulled away again, all the people had gone.

Through the hole in the broken window Derek could only see the ugly, decrepit lawn and garden. But the shards of the window, which were lying on the carpet beneath it, were still displaying the Shaw Glass scene they had been seeded with. It appeared to be a meadow or possibly a farmer’s field. Derek was amused to see the back half of a cow in one rather large fragment. Presumably the front half was being displayed in one or more of the other fragments. Then the cow ambled out of view and the glass fragment just showed a well nibbled field. Fantails swooped low over the grass, harvesting the insects disturbed by the cow’s passing.

Derek looked up as Mr Atkinson shuffled back into the room carrying a tray. It held a roll of paper towels, a jug, some glasses and a plate of chocolate biscuits. He put the tray down on a table and handed Peter a couple of towels from the roll. “Mop up the blood and clean your face with these,” he instructed. Then he poured lemonade from the jug into the glasses. “Now,” he said as he handed the glasses to the two boys, “which one of you really broke my window?”

Peter took a long gulp of lemonade then he said, “I did, Mr Atkinson.” His voice sounded subdued. “I’m sorry I broke your Shaw Glass. I know it’s really expensive stuff.”

Mr Atkinson waved away his apologies. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “The insurance will pay for a new one. I’m much more interested in how you managed to do it. The garden out there is quite large and therefore the house is set a long way back from the alley. Shaw Glass is very tough stuff, it doesn’t break easily. I wouldn’t have expected the football to have enough energy left in it to break the glass by the time it reached the window. You must have a very powerful kick on you.”

Peter grinned with pride. “Yes,” he said. “I once scored a goal by kicking a football from one end of the field to the other. Nobody expected it to go that far and the goalkeeper was nowhere to be seen when it landed. Easiest goal ever! Even Derek was impressed. He’s more accurate than me, but I can kick a lot further and a lot stronger than he can.”

“I’m impressed,” said Mr Atkinson. “Have a chocolate biscuit.” He passed the plate around. Derek and Peter helped themselves.

“What made you invest in so much Shaw Glass for your windows, Mr Atkinson?” asked Derek. “It’s so expensive that most people usually only have one pane of it. But you’ve got at least four. That’s unheard of!”

A shadow passed over Mr Atkinson’s face. “I knew the inventor,” he said. “It seemed appropriate, somehow.”

“You knew Mr Shaw?” said Derek. “I bet he was a super scientist.”

“And probably a super rich one,” said Peter through a mouthful of biscuit crumbs. “At least he’d have been super rich after he invented the glass.”

“No, Bob Shaw wasn’t rich,” said Mr Atkinson, “and he never saw a single pane of the glass in real life. He died long before the technology was perfected. But nevertheless he was the inventor of it. He was a writer, and he used the idea of the glass in a novel. He actually called the stuff slow glass in his book because light slows down when it reaches the glass and it takes years and years to get from one side of the window to the other. So what you see when you look it is what was actually in front of the glass twenty or thirty years ago rather than what’s in front of it now.” Mr Atkinson helped himself to a biscuit and nibbled it slowly. “I suppose,” he continued, “that in another thirty years or so all that anybody will see in these panes of glass will be my rather neglected garden as the light from it finally gets through to this side of the window. But I’ll be long gone by then, so I don’t really care. It will be somebody else’s problem.”

“How did you meet Mr Shaw?” asked Peter.

“I’d read many of his novels,” said Mr Atkinson, “and I liked them a lot. One day I saw a notice in a bookshop saying that Bob Shaw would be there doing a book signing. I took along some books to get them autographed and we chatted a while. We got on well with each other and we kept in touch over the years and we grew quite close. I was devastated when he died.”

Derek noticed that between them he and Peter had eaten the rest of the chocolate biscuits and that all the lemonade had been drunk. “We should be going, Mr Atkinson,” he said. “Thanks for the snack.”

“Don’t forget your football,” said Mr Atkinson, handing it to Peter who tucked it under his arm. “Keep on kicking,” continued Mr Atkinson, “but preferably do it a long way away from my house.”

* * * *

Derek remembered all this as clearly as if it had happened yesterday rather than thirty years ago. Perhaps inspired by the event, Derek had studied physics at university and had gone on to build a successful career for himself as a Shaw Glass engineer. When Mr Atkinson had finally died Derek had bought his house from the estate and he had lived in it now for the last ten years. The Shaw Glass window that Peter had broken had been replaced by a fresh pane that had been seeded for twenty five years with a soothing, and largely static, view of Mount Fuji. The other Shaw Glass windows though were now coming to the end of their lives. For the last week they had all been displaying the unkempt garden that Derek remembered so well from thirty years ago when both Peter and Mr Atkinson had still been alive.

Peter had died ten years after kicking the football that, in retrospect, had signalled the start of Derek’s own career. Peter had been a soldier in Iraq and rumour had it that he died kicking a suicide bomber out of the way, killing both the bomber and himself but saving the lives of the rest of his platoon. Derek still missed him. He’d give anything to see his best friend again. And so that was why he was sitting here now, as he did every day at this time, staring at the Shaw Glass windows, waiting to see Peter and himself walk into the alley with a football, waiting to see the football arching towards the space where Mount Fuji now stood.

Perhaps today would be the day.


René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. Many of his paintings show shattered windows with the glass fragments still displaying the scenes that had once been outside them.

Bob Shaw (1931-1996) was a science fiction writer. He invented the concept of slow glass and used the idea in several of his stories. He later expanded those stories into the novel Other Days, Other Eyes.

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