The Tour

1

I bet Rob will be late, he always is. The number of times we’ve been knocking on his front door, trying to wake him on a Sunday morning, only to find that’s he’s used the remains of last night’s Chinese takeaway as a pillow. When he does finally open the door, it’s not uncommon to find bits of noodle in his hair as he wordlessly ushers us in whilst he attempts to find his boots. Then we have to stop for him, as the would-be feathers come hurtling out of his stomach within ten minutes of leaving his house and yet somehow, he’s the one that holds this lot together.

When I say this lot, I mean the rather haphazard collection of old school mates and acquaintances who decided that it would be a good idea to start up a football team. This is at a time when most sensible blokes are getting seriously stuck into developing that oh so desirable “fuller figure” or settling down with a girlfriend or wife and maybe kids. Of course, some of them have the kids but are without the other key part of the equation. It’s not like any of us are really any good anyway, I guess that explains why five years or so after leaving school none of us were playing football any more, even though we all loved it.

I think it was Tim, who first suggested the idea of getting a team together. Someone that he worked with, played in a Sunday team.

“You should see him,” Tim said. “He must be at least twenty stone, he gets knackered doing the coffee run, let alone storming up the wing! If he can play for a team, surely we can.”

The inevitable mutual appreciation society began, “You were always a handful for defenders Andy,” said Mike. “I’m sure you could still score a goal or two.”

“Well maybe, and you would be great at the back,” said Andy nodding at his sleepy eyed mate Deano who had just spilt his first pint down the front of his new Pogues T-Shirt.

And on it went, by closing time the germ of an idea had developed into a plan for a full-blown training session the following Sunday morning. Normally plans hatched in The Flyer were discarded before the bolts has slammed shut on the double doors which closed onto the busy main road, yet for some reason this one stuck and here we are just over 12 months later, bags packed and heading off on tour.

Of course, as with everything the team did, it wasn’t really a proper tour, for one thing we weren’t even sure if we would be playing any games. There was a lose plan for a game or two but we were travelling more with the hope of playing than with any real certainty. And what a trip it’s going to be, we are actually heading overseas! It turns out that Rich has family in a small town in Southern Ireland, they know of a big, but importantly cheap B&B where we can all stay, so all we have to do is get ourselves across the Irish Sea.

Now that’s not quite as straight forward as it sounds, not only do the twelve of us need to get there but also, we need to be able to get around a bit when we are there. So in the same way as the Royal Family do, we have split our travelling party into two groups, partially so that we can avoid a 1958 Manchester United in Munich type disaster where virtually the whole team get wiped out, obviously our footballing legacy may not be at quite the same level as the Busby Babes but I’m sure that people would go misty eyed when talking about the great lost generation of Trev’s Twenty something’s should the worst happen. The other reason is that it’s a very long drive to Fishguard when you’ve got twelve blokes and their luggage in the back of a Transit van.

Yeah, I know it’s not the classiest way to travel but it costs us nothing other than petrol and as I’m the driver, I at least get a seat rather than rolling in the back like the rest of them. My Dad works for a transport company and can easily lose a van for a week, so here we are in our version of luxury travel.

It’s just after 9am on this October morning and I’ve just picked up Trev, or boss, as he’s known when on team duties. We decided that Rob should come with us in the van whilst the rest of the team make their way across Wales by train in order to meet us on the ferry, as at least we can be a little flexible about the time that we leave, if he were to miss the train he’d miss the trip and that would spoil the fun for everyone. We pull into Rob’s road and there he is, standing outside his house, bag by his side, team jumper proudly being worn ready for the big adventure.

“What’s up Rob?” shouts Trev through the open window of the van, “Haven’t you been to bed yet?”

“That’s a bit harsh boss. You know that I’m a new man, Mr. Reliable that’s me”

He jumps into the cab to sit alongside Trev on the passenger bench seat in the front and flings his bag into the back of the van. I press one of the many newly recorded tapes that I’ve been working on for weeks into the cassette player on the dash and as we drive away from our insignificant part of Bristol “The Sound of the Suburbs” by The Members echoes around the virtually empty van.

“This is the sound, this is the sound, this is the sound, this is the souowowowond” Rob and I shout along at the top of our voices, breaking the peace of this quiet Fishponds morning. Trev gives us a withering look.

“You and your pop music, isn’t it time you moved on a bit.”

Over recent weeks Trev and Rob have been having a succession of minor fallouts, which have resulted in some awkward nights in the bar. The last thing I need is for them to be chipping away at each other for the next few hours as we head west, so I’m pleased that Rob lets the comment pass without response.

The journey through Wales, towards the ferry port of Fishguard, is not an uncommon one for me. Regular trips to see family in their small South Wales town which seemed to have its very own rain cloud tethered permanently above its coal grey roofs, meant that I’m pretty familiar with the journey over the Severn Bridge. When I was younger, we would make the journey every other weekend, leaving the motorway to head north through the tightly angled valleys before arriving for a traditional Sunday roast chicken lunch to be followed by tinned fruit and evaporated milk. I never could get the hang of that, if the milk had evaporated what on earth was left in the tin? Anyway, this time we were pushing much further west and there was not a cloud in the sky, then again, we hadn’t crossed the bridge yet.

The rest of the team are making the journey from Bristol to Fishguard by train, and the three of us entrusted with the new club coach spent a good part of the initial road trip speculating on who would have failed to get to Temple Meads on time for the shrilly piercing whistle which would signal the trains departure.

Ad’s had been entrusted with everyone’s tickets as we figured that it would be easier to have one person remembering something rather than nine. Part of me envied those that were going by rail, the chance to spread out in the train, read a paper, wander up and down the carriage as the countryside hurtles past your window even eat from a table as you travel it sounded like a good deal to me but no-one else was up for driving, so here I was, behind the wheel discussing the latest updates on the potential for a game or two at the end of our long journey.

Rob was, as ever full of tales of what he was going to do. It’s the first time that he’s left England and it had made him even more ebullient than usual. It’s a strange thing to leave your country for the first time, I know that when I went on a coach trip to Paris a couple of years ago, I was left feeling a little disappointed about the country of my birth, or rather the people that I shared the place with. The French people we encountered were all unfailingly polite, helpful and curious about us, even with our minimal use of their language, barriers were overcome and brief but enjoyable connections were made. By way of contrast, some of our fellow travellers were so lost in their misguided sense of superiority that you had to wonder why they ever bothered to leave their beloved England, if all they could do was moan about the supposed shortcomings of their temporary home. Thankfully none of the lads in our team had such small-minded attitudes.

“It’s like being an international,” said Rob. “Imagine it, being chosen from all the people in the country. Gradually over the years the forty odd million people in England are whittled away, first the women, then the men that are too old or too young. Then another chunk of people take them self out of the competition simply by choosing not to play football. That still must leave, what I don’t know, at least a million people that play the game but thousands and thousands of them are hopeless, you know absolutely chronic, so now you are down to tens of thousands and you’re starting to be in with a chance. But then you get injured and no one will ever really know what you could have done. The lucky ones though, they avoid that, the right person watches them play when they are still in school an invitation here, a trial there and then an offer, suddenly you’re a real contender. You’ve chosen your position and now that huge number of people has been whittled down to only hundreds that are in direct competition for your place. Things go well, you change clubs and then it’s just you and one other, you get the call to join the squad, the press say that you are the man for the role and then 8pm one dark winter evening, all the people in the country that could have been chosen, well they’ve been rejected. You are the only person in the whole nation that can fulfil that role – what a feeling that must be!”

“Yeah and then you go and cock it up by having a shocker and it never happens again,”

I say.

“But what a moment to have in your life,” Rob replies. “And this week we, we get to represent our patch, in Europe. How great is that?”

“As long as we actually get a game arranged!” chips in Trev.

“I think I realised when I was about ten or eleven years old that I’d never be good enough to play for England” I say “But there was still hope, seeing that my mum was Welsh, I figured that I’d have a chance of playing for them instead, everyone knows that they were really only interested in Rugby.”

“They even have Rugby posts on the Severn Bridge,” laughs Rob.

“But when I reached fourteen or so, I realised that I didn’t even have a chance there. That was when I asked Mum and Dad if we had any relations from Lichtenstein, San Marino or Andorra places that aren’t much more than pub teams, yet they get to play international games.”

“Doubt if there any many people called Jones in any of those places, I think that’s your problem,” Said Rob. “Yeah, I might have stood out a bit, what with that and my lack of any real ability.”

“So, this is as good as it’s going to get for us lot,” said Rob. “I was talking to Rich last night and it does look like we’ve got a least one game lined up, maybe even two”

“Do you think that they’ll be any good?” I ask. “Given all I’ve said about wishing I’d come from a smaller place, how embarrassing would it be to go to a tiny town in Ireland, play some locals and get walloped!”

“Funny you should say that,” said Rob. “Rich did say that some of his cousin’s mates are in a team and are going to play us, thing is though, they are a Hurling team not a football team!”

“Let’s hope they leave their gear at home then,” says Trev “still at least we should be able to beat them.”

“Don’t be too sure, they might bring their sticks with them!”

 

2

Just past Swansea and all is going well, the van may not be the speediest vehicle in the world, but it chugs along quite nicely. I’m not sure if it’s the van or me that’s unwittingly keeping in time with the tapes but there was a noticeable drop in speed when Rob and I were dreamily lip-synching along with Mac during Zimbo by the Bunnymen. Luckily The Redskins have just come on and “Keep on keepin’ on!” is both appropriate for our situation and has enough oomph to push up back over the 70mph figure.

Rob and I share huge amounts of musical touchstones; I’ve lost track of the number of bands that he’s introduced me to over the years. Along with John Peel and the NME he’s cost me a lot of money since I started working. It’s just the way he’d wander into The Flyer and say things like “Have you heard Candyskin by The Fire Engines yet? Really, it’s the perfect single to put on when you are deciding what shirt to wear, I can’t imagine how I ever got dressed before.” And then, even though I’d always wear a black T-Shirt with a black jumper, I just had to have the record in my life. There are different shades of black you know, and I need all the help I can get when it comes to clothes.

We weren’t really mates at school to be honest. We didn’t dislike each other but he was a year ahead of me and Trev and most of the other lads in the team, and there wasn’t much banter between the age groups, unless you count avoiding a beating at the hands of his classmates as a worthwhile exchange. Unfortunately, the old iron fence at our own crumbling example of the Bristol education system was partially overgrown with Blackberry bushes, so come that glorious day at the start of September when we would enter the playground in our brand new, bright as a Colgate smile white shirts, Rob’s classmates thought it would be the best fun to see how many instant Ribena samples they could make by crushing those berries into our shirts.

Rob wasn’t the sort to join in with those sorts of high jinks, but I still kept him and his mates at a respectful or was it a fearful distance. It was only when we had both left school without those bothersome qualifications, which forced people from other towns to leave their home and head off to university towns that we really got to know each other. He spotted me at a gig and came over to have a chat. His mate had let him down at the last minute; I didn’t have any friends that wanted to spend an evening in the company of The Monochrome Set in a partially derelict church in a run-down part of Bristol, so by default we watched the gig together. I liked the way that he didn’t talk when the band were playing, any chat during the gig was kept to a minimum,

“This one’s going to be the next single”, “They’ve changed the lyrics to that one since the Peel session” and the like. At the end of the gig he seemed most impressed by the way guitarist Lester Square played the whole set standing with his legs crossed, a suitably sleight and stupid reason to like a band and impress me with his sense of the gently ridiculous.

He does love to drink though and initially I tried to keep up with him, not in an alcoholic way mind you as I normally drove to gigs. If he had a pint, I’d have a soft drink, which was fine in theory, but after one particular day when the fourteen orange juice and lemonades I’d consumed left me feeling more bloated than an over inflated beach ball, I decided to let him go at his own pace and I would make my way to the bar only when it suited me. Unlike some mates Rob didn’t take umbrage about the fact that I didn’t want to drink myself into a shambles, he let me do things my way and he just became more excitable as those nights wore on.

Many years earlier it was Trev and I who had shared a musical awakening, but with music of a very different style. At the time when punk was shaking the world or at least causing a minor tremor in Bristol, we threw ourselves headlong into the mystical, magical world of proper grownup longhaired, loon pant wearing Rock music. The longer the track, the more bombastic the album titles, the more we loved it. How wonderfully sophisticated we felt as we listened to seventeen minute epics, whilst others had to make do with mere three minute pop songs.

Due to a strange quirk of science Trev could receive Radio Caroline loud and clear at his house. Although I lived less than a mile away from him, I enjoyed only a fleeting relationship with the station. The power of the signal appeared to come and go on the merest breeze, leaving me with a scrambled collection of guitar solos, wailing vocals and masses of strange static hum. By contrast when calling for him on the way to school I would normally be let in to the house by his exasperated looking father, barely able to make his “Mornin’” heard above whichever rock classic Radio Caroline had decided would make a suitable breakfast treat.

“Who’s this?” I would nervously ask. No reply as Trev perfectly replicated the fingering for the guitar solo, using the bread knife as his fret board. This went on for some time.

“We’re going to be late,” Still no reply. “Trev c’mon it’s twenty to, we better go.”

“You can’t rush Rainbow man. It’s the new album.”

“Ah, Rainbow” I mumble, well beneath the volume of the ear-piercing vocals of Ronnie James Dio which have just entered the fray of Trev’s breakfast time, “great”.

Obviously our seventy something teacher Mr. Carey would understand the situation. White haired, with the more than a touch of the elderly Alistair Sim about him, he was not your standard, fresh out of teacher training, tutor. He had apparently retired at least twice before getting bored and heading back to work. We loved him, as although he was an excellent maths teacher, as he could be distracted by just the slightest hint of an interesting non maths related topic. Whole lessons could be lost to the development of post war cinema in Italy or the detrimental effect that TV had upon the poetic soul of the nation. We learnt a lot in his class, very little of it was related to maths though.

“Why are you late boys?”

“Radio Caroline had an exclusive play of Man on the Silver Mountain from the new Rainbow album sir”

“Really, the new live album?”

“Yes sir.”

“Understood. You didn’t tape it by any chance?”

“No Sir. Sorry sir”

“Shame, Dio may not be in the same league as Ian Gillian but as rock vocalists go, he makes a much better foil for Blackmore than David Coverdale ever did. I look forward to hearing the results, I doubt that it shall match the glory of Deep Purple’s “Made in Japan” live album but we can live in hope.”

“Absolutely Sir.”

Well this was all highly unlikely (I think Mr. Carey preferred Hawkwind), luckily for us the track came to an end rather suddenly and we were free to leave, dashing into our classroom with minutes to spare.

Fortunately for Trev, his dad’s building company was obviously doing very well and for a quiet (well almost!) life, Frank was happy to dish out a weekly amount of pocket money, which I would just about equal in a month. This meant that Trev’s album collection grew in size at about the same speed as the newly sprouting hairs on my top lip. He was never very keen to let me borrow any of his beloved record collection but if pressed would deign to record a couple of albums onto a C90 cassette for me, so that I could master my own imaginary guitar playing technique in the comfort of my own bedroom.

Sometimes I even had enough money to buy my own records, often they were second hand with the additional scratches and bumps that this could entail. In the days when I only had ten albums to listen to, the endless repeated plays meant that I knew those records better than I knew my own parents. Those scratch’s which were initially annoying, eventually became part of the record, so much so, that if I heard someone else’s copy without my additional extras, it just sounded wrong.

Eventually Trev decided that listening to music at home was all well and good, but we needed to experience some real live music.

“Look at this,” he said in the school dining hall one day as he thrust a copy of Melody Maker in my direction. “ELP are playing at Longleat in the summer. We have to go.”

“Wow, that’s great. How we will get there?” I said.

“Don’t worry about that, we can hitch there”

“Oh, yeah I suppose so.”

“It’ll be great; I’ve heard that they are so loud that the vibrations from the bass can make you feel sick.”

“Oh, is that good?”

“Of course it is, what an experience. We could camp out after the gig; I expect that we’d meet up with the band the next day”

“Camp out?”

“Yeah”

“We don’t have a tent”

“We can borrow one”

“What if it rains?”

“Sounds like you’re scared to me”

“No, no I’m not scared, it’s just…”

“Just what? C’mon man it will be the best night of our lives!”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

Luckily for me, given my lifelong aversion to camping the gig didn’t happen, so I didn’t have to lose face in front of Trev by saying I didn’t want to go. Eventually we did start to go and see a few bands; thankfully they all took place in venues within spitting distance of a bus stop.

At last we reach Fishguard, we’ve actually made pretty good time and are here about an hour earlier than we aimed for. We park up in the short Ferry queue that’s started to form and decide to walk over to the station as the rest of the lads should be coming in any time now.

“What do we do if they aren’t on the train?” I say, “Should we go over anyway, or do we drive back to Bristol with our tail between our legs?”

“They’ll be there,” answers Rob “Everyone’s been looking forward to this for months, nothing’s going to stop them now.”

“I hope so,” says Trev. “I just hope they haven’t been drinking too much on the train. This crossing can be a bit of a spew fest from what I’ve been told, they won’t just be thinking the rooms spinning, it could be a reality.”

We have a pee and then grab some crisps from the shop in the station and check the arrivals information, all looks good, they should be here in the next couple of minutes. Sure, enough five minutes later the train glides in and our nine team-mates step of the train.

“Howdy Boss, we’ve got a bit of time on our hands, where’s the boozer?” shouts Andy.

“I’ve been in this town for, oh what, fifteen minutes in my entire life. Why would I know where to go?”

“Because you’re our leader, we can’t do anything without you, you know that.”

And sure enough, Trev rejects the first pub that we walk past and we all dutifully follow him onto the next one.

“OK drinks kitty time boys, £20 per person,” announces Rob as the train travellers drop their bags in the corner of the bar.

“That won’t get you to Ireland.” shouts Ad’s.

“Well it might if no-one else has a drink.” says a laughing Andy. “C’mon let’s get ’em in, get your money out.”

“Boss, where are the loos?” asks Rich.

“How the hell do I know? But since you ask, that big sign behind you tell me, they are up the stairs.”

“Cheers boss.”

 

3

How much longer? This is awful, I think to myself. We’ve only been on the boat around an hour and already I’m contemplating the benefits of suicide. Things looked bad when members of the crew were hurriedly moving around the boat distributing extra sick bags as we were settling into some seats in the bar area.

“Could be a rough one,” Rob says. “Better line our stomachs with some spirits’. Give me some of that kitty money Ad’s.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I say. Already the gentle motion of the water is setting up a corresponding movement deep in the pit of my stomach. This could be a very long crossing.

Sure enough, as soon as we edge clear of the protection that the harbour offered, I start to feel distinctly uncomfortable. I decided that maybe it would be good idea to walk around the boat, give myself something else to concentrate on, rather than just trying to ignore all my mates telling me how dodgy they are feeling. The boat is absolutely packed and a sizeable proportion of my fellow passengers are elderly Americans with a hideous line in loud checked clothing. Why do people from Wisconsin, or wherever this lot are from, think that a purple and blue stripe check over a green background would make attractive pattern for a pair of trousers or pants as I’m sure they would call them? “Of course”, they would say that the “pants” have a lovely plaid pattern, of course it’s tartan, not plaid and the fact that they even give the ridiculous pattern the right name only makes me feel more annoyed, none of this is helping with my state of health, I’m rapidly developing a searing headache and I’m sure that the bizarre sartorial styles are not helping, yet everywhere I turn there are more of them. The swell outside is getting bigger and my discomfort increases with every lurch that the boat takes. I decide it’s time to visit the toilets, in case the contents of my stomach decide that they want to pop outside and take a look around for themselves.

Serious mistake! As soon as I push the door open, my nose is attacked by the acrid smell created by the discomfort of people, who have already gone to the next notch of the scale that marks the journey from a person who thinks that a plate of wriggling Elvers could make an interesting culinary experience, to someone who is unable to keep a few crumbs from a digestive biscuit within their tempestuous bowels.

Suddenly my foot slips beneath me, the floor is a constantly moving, glistening mass of yellows, browns and a mysterious opaque colour the like of which I hope never too see again. One of my American friends has lost his footing, the pattern on the rear of his not so delightful “Pants” now smudged and distorted and getting darker by the second. I think about bending down to help him up, yet should I try this straightforward manoeuvre, I know that the contents of my stomach could well cover the poor chap in further embarrassment. So, with all the cubicle doors locked firmly shut, I look towards the urinals.

These are unlike any urinal I’ve seen before, instead of being individual bowls, we are presented with one long trough, stretching the length of the room. Fair enough, I’ve seen that at many football grounds around the country and a very efficient use of space it is, when you are presented with a large number of men who need to remove fluids in the shortest possible time. As long as nobody takes offence at some shoulder contact and you keep your eyes firmly focused on the wall – at eye level- directly in front of you, then everyone is happy.

However, this particular vessel, for this is what it has become as nothing is moving freely through it, has been fitted with an enormous clear frontage, coming up seven or eight inches from the base of pipe which has been built to take our collective fluids away. I guess it’s meant to stop any “splash-back” issues, which as all men will know can be a problem if you’ve selected a light pair of trousers for that days adventure. Sadly though, due to the lack of cubicle space many of the previous (and indeed, several current) visitors to the facility had been forced to drop the swirling torment of their stomach into what was rapidly becoming a huge sludge tank, the height of which was rising rapidly, occasionally slopping over the top as a particularly large wave smashed the boat this way and that.

I had to get out of there, clutching my as yet unused sick bag in hand; I gingerly squelch my way towards the door. The poor American has just about made it back to his feet and I edge past him and into the corridor as the lurch of the boat sends me crashing into the wall. Even out in the walkway, the air is claustrophobically warm and filled with an overpowering stench. I look up and see a small child being shaken violently around as his father somehow keeps hold of the young boy’s hand whilst adding to the chaos as his stomach spews forth its contents.

Maybe if I can get outside the cool air and lack of nauseous smells may calm my own stomach. I try to run but my legs have been sapped of all their energy, so the best I can muster is a jerky, half speed skip. A door to my left swings open as a crewmember bursts in with a mop and the largest bucket I’ve ever seen. I push through the gap he has left and as the wind hit’s my face I momentarily feel cooler and slightly more relaxed, then I start to shiver. My body is now in some frantic spasm and my stomach decides to join in as well. Up it comes; I clutch the bag, bend over and out comes a mighty torrent. Through mouth and nose, last night’s tea, breakfast, those crisps and assorted drinks are channelled into the bag. Temporary calm envelopes me before uncertainty starts again, three hours to go. Why bother? Why don’t I just end it all now by jumping overboard?

I’m in luck though, I notice a small door, which opens to reveal a large cupboard whose only contents are some old ropes and a stool. I lower myself down, still desperately clinging onto my bag and somehow, I manage to fall asleep in my own private hideaway. When I wake, things are relatively calm, land is in sight and I’m fairly confident that I can stand up unaided.  I make my way through the carnage of the boat to the bar.

“Eh up drives, fancy a cheeky drink before we dock?” asks an unconcerned looking Rob.

“No thanks, let’s wait ‘till we get to Carlow. It might have a chance of staying down by then.”

The rest of the team are in a reasonable state, apart from Deano who looks as though he has spent most of the crossing, spitting beer down the front of his T-Shirt.

“How you doing mate?” I ask him.

He shrugs his shoulders, belches, grins and takes another glug from the plastic pint glass in front of him.

Suddenly the idea of driving with a load of drunken mates, wanting to stop every five minutes is looking very unappealing. It’s almost as though Rob can sense my unease and he tells Tim to make sure that all the lads on foot go to the loo as they come off the boat. We’ve arranged that they will walk off the boat and then we will pick them up just outside the gates, as someone official may think twelve blokes leaving the boat in a Transit is a little odd.

Rob, Trev and I make our way down to the bowels of the boat to clamber back into the van. Luckily my stomach appears to have completely settled down so the drive is not as worrying as it could be. We head out of the boat and take the relatively short drive to the port gates and park up to wait for the rest of the gang. We wait for a while, most of the foot passengers appear to have left already but there is no sign of our teammates. The trickle of pedestrians has now stopped completely; ten minutes go by and still there is no sign of them.

“Maybe they walked further on.” Says Rob

“Why would they do that? The plans were perfectly clear, what’s wrong with these people?”

“C’mon boss, let’s not jump to conclusions, something must have happened.”

Another five minutes pass and there is still no sign of them.

“Why don’t I go back and have a look for them?” Rob suggests

“What are you gonna’ do, scour the whole boat looking for them? Drive up the road Jonsey. They must have got out before us and just kept walking.”

“D’ya reckon?” I say. Rob’s giving me look saying that we should sit tight but Trev is insisting.

“C’mon, just drive on a mile, then if we don’t see them, we can just turn round and come back here.”

“OK,” I start up the van and push on slowly but there is no sign of them as we edge tentatively into Ireland.

“They must still be on the boat; they wouldn’t have walked this far. Let’s turn round,” says Rob

“I think he’s right boss, we should head back.”

“If you want.” Trev says.

As soon we are within sight of the Ferry entrance, we can see them.

“There they are, where the bloody hell did they go?” Trev shouts.

We drive closer, Tim spots us and starts waving, I can hear the cheers from the others, and we pull up in front of them. The back doors of the van are opened and they all pile in. The previously cavernous space behind me fills up rapidly and the moans soon begin as they try to find a comfortable space.

“Bloody hell, it’s a tin can on wheels.”

“Watch me foot!”

“No, get in the corner, you can’t sit there, that’s where my legs have to go.”

“What happened to you lot?” barks Trev.

“Well we were almost off the boat when Deano realised that he’d left his jacket in the bar and that he had all his money in it, so we went off to find it,” Andy says.

“But we couldn’t get back in the way we’d come off,” adds Tobes. “So it took ages to find the bar, then we couldn’t get off the boat because half the doors were locked.”

“Deano, what’s wrong with you? You’re a nightmare.” Shouts Rob.

Looking over my shoulder, I see Deano struggling to form some words of explanation.

“Well, it was, the um, y’know, I thought that, but when I, it was…..”

“Oh, shut up,” Says a now weary Trev

“DEEEE-NO, DEEEE-NO, DEEE-NO” Chant the lads in the back.

Eventually they all settle down and I pull away.

“How long will it take Boss?” shout’s Andy.

“Well it’ll be shorter than the gap between your goals,” Trev snaps back.

“Should be around an hour,” I say, “As long as Rich’s directions are up to scratch.”

“They will be fine, my auntie went over them about twenty times on the phone with me last night,” Replies Rich, who’s moved into the front, forcing Rob into the back.

Fittingly “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop comes on about ten minutes into the journey.

“We are the passengers and we ride and we ride.” sings the good naturedly drunken choir behind me, carrying on the refrain long after the tune has finished.

The roads are quiet and we bounce along the slightly uneven roads at a cracking rate. We only have to stop once for an emergency slash break so, ahead of schedule, we see the signs indicating that we are on the edge of Carlow, our home for the next few days. A huge sign advertising “The Green Lodge” tells us to take the next right and then a large break in the hedge marks the driveway that we are looking for.

“I’ve never driven up a long drive like this before,” shouts Mike.

“That’s because you live on a council estate, you don’t need a long drive if no one has a car,” Trev rather harshly points out. “They don’t even give you proper roads; you’ve got those weird slabs of god knows what which look like they’ve been put together like an enormous but very simple jigsaw puzzle. It’s like the council couldn’t be bothered to lay proper Tarmac roads, they just chuck them down to form a road, they don’t even join up properly so when you drive along them you get these odd clicks all the time as you go from one slab to the next.”

“Hey it’s just like that Southfork Ranch from Dallas,” says Tim. Soon the sound of the team singing the Dallas theme tune whilst banging on the side of the van drowns out the sound of Trev’s dismissive rant and the music coming from the speakers.

“Easy boys,” says Rob “we don’t want to get turned away before we’ve even signed in. Let’s try to keep it down.”

We needn’t have worried; our host is the living embodiment of the laid-back Irishman cliché. He greets us in the lobby area with a huge grin on his face and a small whiskey in his hand.

“Hello Gentlemen, I hope that you had a pleasant trip, but experience tells me that at this time of year it would have been worse than being locked in a shed with that old fool Iain Paisley. If any of you still have a few problems in the bowel area, and the contents of your stomach wish to travel up rather than down, please try to make it to the toilet rather than the sink. Plugholes just weren’t designed to cope with that sort of thing you know.

If you can manage that, and not make too much of a commotion in the small hours, we’ll all get on famously. The bar will stay open as long as you want it to, and you’ll be getting a large breakfast in the morning to soak up any alcohol that you might have taken in. So, you will be able to face the day with a smile on your face and that’s the way the people around here will want to see you.

No one else is staying here whilst you fine body of men are gracing us with your presence, so all the guest rooms have a key in the door and on the table inside the room. There is also a front door key on each fob, so feel free to come and go as you please. I’ll let you decide which rooms you want to use, if I can help you in any way just ask me or my wife Claire. My name’s Shane by the way. Now off you go and choose your rooms. I’ll be in the bar if you need me, oh and breakfast is served whenever you want it, up to around noon in the dining room next to the bar. If you can’t make it by noon, I guess we shall call it lunch.”

 

4

We split up into pairs and head off to choose our rooms. I’m with Rob, Trev with Mike, Rich with Tim, Andy with Deano, Pete our goalie is with Jimmy and finally Ad’s and Tobes are sharing.  The rooms are pretty similar, but Trev pulls rank to get the biggest one, not that anyone is too bothered really. Someone shouts out that we should meet up in the bar in around fifteen minutes, what were they thinking? We aren’t really the sorts to carefully unpack and hang things up, so around two minutes later everyone is back downstairs having dumped their bags, Shane is already pulling what I anticipate will be the first of many pints of Guinness.

The Green Lodge is a couple of miles outside the centre of Carlow, Rich had arranged to give his auntie a call when we have arrived, then we all head over to her place to say hello before having an initial look at what the nightlife of Carlow has to offer us. Whilst he is off in the hall way using the payphone, Rob is already trying to work out if he has time for a second pint as the first one has disappeared in a couple of hearty swigs.

“Shane, you’re my hero! That sir, is the finest drink I’ve ever had. We have truly come to heaven boys.”

“Glad you like it, young feller. There’s plenty more for you where that came from.”

“I hope so. I’m Rob, I expect us to become very well acquainted over the next few days.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Shall you be paying now, or should I set up a tab?”

“Best pay as we go, or this could get way out of hand I suspect.”

Rich joins us in the bar “She’s ready for us, I think that we are honoured guests by the sound of things. I expect she’ll have the best china out for us.”

Everyone piles into the van and the ones in the back discover it’s even less comfortable without having the bags to sit on or lean against, still it’s a short journey and pretty soon we are pulling up outside a small terraced house. As soon as I put the handbrake on the front door of the house is thrown open and a tiny lady emerges.

“Hi Auntie Jean, shouts Rich.

“Ah it’s lovely to see you Richard,” she says whilst giving him a huge hug. “Bring all your friends in, so that we can say hello properly. You don’t want to be hanging around on the pavement now, do you boys.”

It’s a pretty average semi-detached house, so fitting the twelve us into the heavily floral patterned room was a bit of a squeeze. To make matters even more interesting a couple of other people are already in there watching the TV at an implausibly high volume.

“Come in, come in,” says Auntie Jean. “Now then, I need to know all your names, so come on Richard introduce your friends, then you can all have a nice piece of the fruit cake I made for you.”

Rich takes his auntie by the hand and moves her around the room, so that she can have a word with all of us.

“This is Jonesy, he’s our driver.”

“Nice to meet you” I say. “Thanks for helping us to arrange this trip.”

“No problem at all Mr. Jonesy, it’s my pleasure. How else will we get to see young Richard here? A visit from him is long overdue.”

The rest of the lads are unusually quiet, now this may be because they can’t compete with the TV or it could be because of the two other people in the room. They are a couple of very pretty girls who have already given Rich a kiss on the cheek, so it looks as though he knows them. Eventually they get introduced to us as Suzanne and Janine, they are Auntie Jeans daughters.

“Come on girls, give me a hand with the tea and the cake now. I’m sure you boys must be gasping for a drink after that long journey of yours.”

The ladies head for the kitchen and immediately Rich is surrounded.

“Well you kept those two quiet.”

“Saving them for yourself eh”

“Come on lads they’re my cousins, I’m hardly going to make a move on them, am I?”

“Well I hope not,” Trev says. “Could probably get you lynched over here. So, are they “with” anyone?”

“I don’t know, haven’t seen them for about six or seven years, they didn’t look like that then!”

“I’m sure they’d like some new company, must get very dull in a small town like this.”

“Oh yes boss, and you’re the one to make things interesting for them, are you? What about Tracey?” Asks Ad’s.

“C’mon Ad’s you know the score, what happens on tour, stays on tour. I’m not saying that anything will happen,” he says with a distinct leer. “If it does, no one at home needs to hear about it.”

“Just be careful boss,” Rob says. “You know that Trace will kill you if she hears of you getting up to anything.”

“I’ll be ok.”

Then the door swings open and Janine comes into the room with a large tray laden with cups, saucers, milk and sugar in her hands.

“Hey, let me help you with that” Shouts Trev. “How can a delicate thing like you be expected to carry all that around?”

“Don’t you worry yourself, I’m not so delicate, you know.”

“Is that right?” he says as he takes the tray from her hands and immediately passes it to Pete.

“There you go Pete, don’t worry he won’t drop it, he’s our goalie. So, Janine, what should we be looking out for whilst we are here?” Trev continues.

Before she has a chance to answer Suzanne and Aunty Jean have come into the room with slices of cake and biscuits. The room is so small that this requires virtually everyone to move around and Janine very nimbly distances herself from Trev as she ensures that we all have a drink; I see Rob suppressing a laugh as he catches the look of frustration on Trev’s face.

“So then boys, I have to tell you that the people of the town are quite excited about all you coming over here to spend some time with us,” says Aunty Jean. “We don’t get many visitors you know; you will be quite the celebrities. I’ve had a word with the girls here and they will be happy to show you around and of course my door is always open for you. I’m sure that you’ll have a wonderful visit.”

A few of the boys mumble their thanks and belatedly the TV is switched off, leaving a rather awkward silence. Everyone has a plate in one hand and a cup and saucer in the other, making eating or drinking rather tricky, in the confined surroundings. Deano tries to lift the plate to his mouth so that he can take a bite of the cake, however it’s not as easy as he thought and with all his concentration focused on the cake, he fails to notice that the cup and saucer combination in his other hand is tilting at an alarming angle.

Finally, he manages to nibble a few crumbs of cake, having lost all awareness of the cup of tea, he is surprised to feel the sudden movement in his left hand as the cup topples over, sending hot tea onto Jimmy’s arm, causing him to yank it violently away and before anyone knows what is happening everyone is involved in a jerking, twitching, swearing mass of bodies, crockery, tea and cake.

“Bloody Hell lads, watch what you’re doing.” Shouts Rob.

Some have got off more lightly than others and I’m feeling rather pleased that my black jeans and jumper combination discretely soaks up the tea that was splashed in my direction. Poor Tobes must be ruing the choice of a white T-Shirt, now that the large dark stain is racing across his back. Luckily none of the cups and saucers appears to be broken and Aunty Jean is taking the calamity in her stride.

“Don’t you worry about it boys, it’s my fault I should have put the tea in a mug. Anyone want a top up?”

“We better not, I think we’ve caused enough chaos for you already Aunty.” Says Rich. “C’mon lads let’s make a move.”

Shame faced we start to make our way out into the hallway, towards the front door.

“No-one going to offer to tidy up then?” asks Rob.

“Don’t you worry about it boys, I’ll take care of it,” Aunty Jean replies. “Go on girls, take the lads round to Davey’s, I expect some of them fancy a pint.”

“We can’t leave all this to you mam,” Suzanne says.

“Yes you can, go on now, on your way. I’ll see you later in the week boys, have a lovely night.”

Out on the street Rich and the girls lead the way, on what turns out to be a short walk to the bar. The clouds are gathering but we arrive at the nondescript looking bar before the rain can add to the tea stains, which are shared around the team.

The pub is large but sparsely populated; the few people that are there turn their heads to watch us make our way to the bar. The barman looks at us and waits for someone to order; inevitably Rob starts the ball rolling by asking the girls what they would like to have. So he orders two small ciders, an orange juice and lemonade and eleven pints of Caffreys. Ad’s produces the kitty money to pay for the round and we stand around a series of tables, drinks in hand, taking in our new surroundings.

Rich, Suzanne and Janine are catching up on family gossip, and I realise that I’m absolutely exhausted. It’s been a long day of travelling and could happily just head back to The Green Lodge and climb into bed. Most of the other lads are chatting away excitedly, so I guess I’ll be out for a while yet. Rob has discovered an old jukebox in the corner of the bar and is giving the song list a thorough going over.

“Not much here for me, it’s more down your street Tim, come and pick something decent from all this soul stuff.”

“Leave it Rob, you’ll only tell me that it’s music for girls, like you always do.”

“No, I won’t, come on, it’s our first night abroad we need some tunes.”

“Let me have a look,” says Andy, moving towards Rob. I go over to join them.

“You aren’t much better,” laughs Rob. “We don’t want any of those nursery rhymes that you play for your daughter mind.”

“Yeah, I’m sure they’d be on a pub jukebox,” He shoots back. “Here we go The Temptations, can’t go wrong with them.”

“Talking of nursery rhymes, how are things back home? Do you get to see much of Shelley at the moment?”

“Not really, that bitch Michelle makes things as awkward as she can for me. I still can’t work out what I did wrong, but she won’t talk to me. She’s seeing a right slime ball from Kingswood at the moment. I don’t want Shelley thinking that he’s her dad as she’s growing up.”

“Sorry mate, don’t really know what to say, still at least you’re away with the lads. Try to put it out of your mind and have a laugh.”

“Yeah, how’s things with you then? Been a bit frosty between you Trev lately.”

“He’s on a bit of a power trip at the moment, seems to spend most of his time putting people down, I don’t get it. We all go back a long way, why he’s suddenly got to play the big shot with us?”

“I think he’s got a lot going on at work, and Trace keeps him well under the thumb, so maybe he just needs to reassert himself a bit and he has to do it at our expense.”

“Could be but, I’m getting a bit pissed off with him, I know he puts a lot of time into arranging things for the team, I just wish he didn’t need to tell us how superior he is all the time.”

“I’ll try to have a quiet word with him, he’s been alright with me. Talking of asserting himself it looks like he’s keen on Rich’s cousin, the one with the black hair.”

“I think she’s sussed him already, I hope she puts him in his place.”

Looking back across the bar, Trev has indeed made a beeline for Janine, although she is doing her best to keep Rich between them, with only limited success. Looks like she could be in for a testing few days. I think that it’s best to leave Rob and Andy to their chat, so I wander back to the main group of lads. Rich shouts out to me as I’m making my way over.

“Hey Jonsey, the game’s on for tomorrow night against the Hurling boys. Suzanne is best mates with one of their team and he’s been telling her that they’re going to thrash us.”

 

5

Looking at the group of drunk, tired lads around me, I think that he may well be right. We haven’t really moved on much from our first few games over a year ago, after that initial training session Trev organised a game against a team that a friend of his played for when they had a free weekend. He assured us that it would be fine, this other lot were involved in the bottom rung of Sunday league football and from what he had heard were pretty hopeless.

Our initial problem was actually getting eleven people onto the pitch for the game. On the Thursday before the match we only had seven players. Mike was away on holiday, Andy was trying to save his relationship with Michelle, a couple of other lads who had said that they were interested had quickly backtracked when the prospect of actually playing rather than just talking about it came along. To top it all we had no goalie.

We were asking anyone with two legs under the age of fifty that we even vaguely knew, if they would play. Whilst this was going on we were also trying to borrow a full kit from someone so that we could at least look like a team. On the Friday evening we gathered as normal in The Flyer, when I arrived in the bar Trev was chatting to Phil, the landlord when I joined them it sounded like Phil had been talked into playing although he obviously still had doubts.

“Just don’t expect too much from me, it’s twenty years since I’ve played and I can’t remember the last time I moved at anything more than a stroll.”

“Don’t worry Phil, you can play at the back, you won’t need to move beyond the half way line. From what I’ve heard their forwards are rubbish, it’ll be a nice little run out for you,” replied Trev.

“OK then, I think I’ve still got my old boots somewhere, God knows what state they are though.”

“Great that’s sorted then,” says Trev. “Welcome aboard.”

Trev and I wander over to our usual corner of the bar to join Rob, Deano and Ad’s.

“How’s it going lads?” asks Rob.

“Well, I’ve finally talked Phil into it,” Replies Trev. “He’s going to play at the back, oh and I’ve got a kit sorted as well. Someone that dad knows is going to drop it round to me tomorrow morning.”

“Good man, I think that you should be the manager, you obviously have the organisational skills that we are looking for,” says Rob. “Everyone else agree?”

We all say yes; Trev raises his glass and says with a grin.

“Well it’s a great honour boys, now where do we find a keeper? ‘Cause I ain’t playing in goal that’s for sure.”

“Oh, I might have some news there,” say’s Ad’s. “Turns out Lisa’s new boyfriend used to play in goal when he was in school, she’s going to ask him tonight. They should pop in here later, so you can talk him into it boss.”

“That’s if your sister can keep him that long, she’s got slippery fingers that one, can’t seem to hold onto anyone for more than five minutes.”

“Talk of the devil,” says Rob.

We turn to look at the door and in walks a very odd couple. Lisa is, as ever, dressed for a Hollywood red carpet premier, all high heels and exposed flesh, everything she is actually wearing, glitters and shines with garish colour, all topped off with her newly coloured mass of platinum blonde curls, which bubble excitedly as she walks towards the bar.  Towering over her is someone straight from rock school central casting. Long, ruler straight hair drops down his back to the base of his perfectly distressed leather jacket, which swings open to reveal a black Motorhead T-shirt, which obviously contains a suitably muscular torso. Of course, he is wearing jeans, complete with some intriguing rips around the front of his thighs and the chunkiest pair of black leather bikers boots that I have ever seen.

We all turn back to look at Ad’s.

“Is that him? Asks Trev.

“Yeah he’s called Nigel apparently,” says Ad’s laughing. “Never spoken to him myself, she’s only been seeing him for about a week.”

“Well he’s tall.” I say. “That’ll come in handy.”

“Yeah but how long will it take him to dry his hair following the after match shower? Says Trev.

“Tell him that we can’t afford to pay his shampoo bills, we’ll be bankrupt before we’ve even started.” I say.

Lisa waves at us, goes up on her tiptoes to have a word in her chaps’ ear and heads over to join us.

“Hi sis, didn’t bother getting dressed up tonight then.”

“Now then Adrian, don’t be nasty to me or I won’t let Nige help you out.”

“OK, you’re right we need him, more than I need to make cheap jokes at your expense.”

“He’s a big lad,” says Rob. “Haven’t seen him around before.”

“No, he lives in Clifton.”

“Blimey, how did you manage that? I thought the council had an exclusion zone around Clifton to keep gold diggers out,” said Rob with a grin.

“Who’s a gold digger? I earn more than him you know. I’m not just a pretty face.”

“So, what does he do then?”

“Well Rob, for your information he’s an actor.”

“Been in anything we would have heard of?”

“Not yet, but he’s got some things lined up.”

“TV, films, adverts?”

“Well I’m not sure but he tells me that he’s just waiting for the right offer to come along”

Nigel is now making his way over to us, Lisa does the introductions as he grabs a stool and sits down alongside her.

“So, Nige, I hear you’re up for a game on Sunday?” Says Trev.

“Yes, Shelley tells me you guys haven’t played together before, so I guess you’ve got no idea of the standard?”

“Well a few of us used to be pretty good, no idea about the opposition though,” Rob chips in. “It’s a chance to cement your place in history, to be one of the original members of the glorious team that changed the face of local football in Bristol!”

“Well Rob may be over selling it somewhat,” says Trev. “It’s just a chance to have a kick about, we will have to wait and see what happens after that. When did you last play?”

“A couple of years ago, when I was up in London. Some of my mates had a Sunday team; I played five or six games, before heading back to Bristol. I’m looking forward to a bit of a run out.”

During the course of the evening we found out that with the help of a few more friends and relations we have actually got the eleven names that we need to raise a team and we start to get quite excited about the game. I have to admit that I had a big concern about my fitness levels, the couple of training sessions in the park had helped but I was still spending more time with my hands on my hips, trying to get my breath back, than punching the air after scoring a cracking goal.

Sunday morning came dry and sunny, proper first game of the season weather and at 9:30 we were standing outside the pub, kit bags in hand and looking forward to the game. The only problem was that Rob had not showed up.

“Phil, can we use the phone in the pub to give him a call?” Trev asked.

“Sure, come with me,” he replied.

No sooner had they gone through the main door, then Rob’s car came screaming around the corner, all the windows were down and the staccato rhythms of Blue Monday by New Order was hammering out into the previously quiet Sunday morning street.

He pulled onto the pub forecourt, almost running over Nige’s foot as he did so.

“Good job you’re in goal Nige,” Rob shouted above the music. “Your footwork was a bit slow there mate.”

“Don’t worry about me mate, I’ll be fine,” Nige replied.

I went into the pub and shouted out that Rob had arrived; I can see Trev with the phone in his hand whilst Phil knocks back what looks like the remains of a glass of whiskey.

“Just to settle the nerves,” he says to me. “Want one?”

“No thanks, not really my style,” I say as I head out to join the others. We all pile into cars and take the short journey to Vassells Park and into the changing rooms. Trev opens the kit bag and an appalling smell engulfs us all.

“What the hell is that stench?” Ad’s says.

Trev puts his hand into the bag and brings out what should be a blue and white shirt, but it’s covered in dried mud and even some green mould.

“Didn’t you check it boss? Asks Rob.

“No, it was only dropped round last night, when I was out. He told me that it hadn’t been used since last season; He didn’t say it hadn’t been washed though. Sorry guys, this is going to be pretty grim.”

I grab a shirt but decide to stick with my own socks and shorts, as I slip it over my head the smell is disgusting. “I don’t think they will want to get too close to us,” I say as I dash out of the changing room as quickly as I can in an effort to get some fresh air.

Our opponents Downend Albion are looking pretty impressive, not only do they have a nice clean kit; they also have four or five balls, which they are warming up with, and a goalkeeper who has a cap – very professional. By way of contrast, we have one ball and a ‘keeper who doesn’t even have a pair of gloves. Trev smashes the ball over to me from about twenty yards; it bounces awkwardly on the lumpy pitch and catches me in the balls with a deadening thump. All the wind leaves my body and my eyes glaze over as I desperately try to give the impression that it didn’t hurt. I summon all my strength to knock the ball back to him, and the ball trickles about ten yards in a trajectory which would have seen it going about twenty yards to his right, had I connected with it properly. The signs are not good.

Looking behind the goal I notice Phil, kneeling over as he throws up in a series of noisy convulsions. Deano has forgotten his boots, so is gingerly running across the grass in a pair of trainers, with the morning dew turning the grass into something of an ice rink for him, it looks like he is going to spend of lot time on his backside. Sure enough moments later he tries to change the direction of his run and down he goes with arms and legs flailing.

“C’mon lads, let’s enjoy this,” shouts Rob. “Keep the ball down, let’s try to pass it around a bit. Stay calm and let people know what’s going on around them.”

We kick off; I don’t touch the ball for what seems like an eternity. I’m running around, but my legs appear to go at half the speed of all the Downend players. Time and again I move towards the ball, only to see it knocked away from me just before I get there.

“Jonsey, get with it man,” Shouts Trev. “Don’t back off them.”

I try to shout back that I’m trying to “get with it” but nothing comes out of my pointlessly open mouth. I’m so far off the pace that a stray pass, suddenly drops at my feet, no one is within forty yards of me.

“Stay calm,” I think to myself as I move towards the ball.

A thousand voices shout at once:

“Time”, “Jonsey, knock it down the channel”, “Use Rob”, “Bring it out”.

It all merges into one huge blur of noise as I dash towards the ball. Somehow, I manage to catch my foot in the grass and the next thing I know I’m falling face down onto the ball, which catches me in the nose with enough pressure to bring tears to my eyes for the second time that morning. I can hear the laughter from the Downend players as one of their forwards makes rapid ground towards me. I try to get up but slip again and he whisks the ball away from me and heads towards our goal. Seconds later the ball is in the net, we are 1-0 down and it’s all my fault.

“Sorry lads,” I mumble. “How long to half time ref, I ask the Downend sub who has taken charge of the whistle.

“How long? Seriously?”

“Yes”

“About forty minutes mate. We’ve only just started!”

Somehow I make it through the next forty minutes and the frequently mentioned second wind does arrive. Fortunately it provides much more impetus than the first one, which had left me decidedly becalmed. We are, by this stage, 3-0 down.

Of course we have no water, oranges or any of the traditional half time pick me up’s, though a few of the lads are enjoying a quick fag. No-one can think of anything sensible to say, so we lie on the ground in a state of shattered silence, before we know it, the Downend lads are trotting back onto the pitch and off we go again.

The second half continues in the same vein, us chasing the Downend players around and only briefly coming into contact with the ball. Phil our aging landlord is starting to look extremely agitated, and when a Downend player knocks the ball through his legs and runs around him, it’s obviously the final straw. He takes an enormous hack at the young lad, luckily missing him by a mile. He’s not finished yet though, somehow a burst of energy sees him draw level with his nemesis but instead of trying to tackle him, Phil simply jumps on his back, dragging him to the ground followed by wave after wave of fortunately poorly aimed punches.

“Nobody takes the piss out of me, you little…”

“Phil, stop it, STOP!”

Shouts Rob, who is the closest player to the action. By now the Downend player has squirmed away from Phil’s grasp and running around in circles trying to get away from him. One his colleagues though has another idea on how to end the spectacle, rushing over to kick Phil’s legs from under him then gripping him round the throat he shouts in Phil’s face.

“Stop it old man, take your sorry ass off the pitch and don’t come back, or you will have me to deal with and I won’t be so reasonable next time.”

Rob, Trev and Nige coax Phil back to his feet and persuade him that maybe it would be best if he went off.

“Yeah, think I’ve pulled a muscle anyway,” says Phil as he shuffles off, the limp strangely swapping legs as he goes.

The rest of the game is played out in a restrained manner with everyone trying to avoid any more explosive confrontations, not that I have anything left within me to explode. I’ve never felt so drained of energy, nothing really aches it’s just as though my body feels as though it doesn’t belong to me, it won’t follow the most basic of instructions from my brain and I’m desperate for the match to end. In the last few minutes of the game Rob, who is the only member of our team who can still run at this point scores a great solo goal to make the score 7-1, we shout our well done’s to him as we are all too knackered to actually run up to him and give him a well deserved slap on the back. Then the whistle blows for full time and I sink to the ground, feeling that I may very well stay there for the rest of my life.

In the changing rooms, hardly a word was spoken. How had we let ourselves become so deluded, that we actually thought that we would not only give that lot a game but that we would beat them?

“Whose idea was that? I’ve never felt so awful, every part of aches,” moaned a weary sounding Trev.

Nobody had the energy to answer him; I just sat there staring at the cold concrete floor, trying to work out how I would find the energy to take off my boots. Even my fingers were tired, as I discovered when I tried to pull the laces open. I can’t grip the end of the lace firmly enough to pull it, what has happened? You don’t even use your fingers when playing football, if they are in this state what are my legs going to be like for the rest of the week?

So, I just sit there, some of the other lads had started chatting but I am unable to fully register anything that is being said. As well as my body being exhausted, my brain appeared to be a spent force as well. I lift my foot again, and with all the concentration and strength that I can muster I tug at the bootlace on my right foot and just about manage to drag it free, allowing me to slowly loosen the boot. It feels as though my foot has expanded, so even though the laces have been undone, it’s still a huge effort to remove my bruised and tender foot from the boot. Eventually I manage to ease it off my heel and the boot falls to the floor with a loud snap as the metal studs encounter the concrete surface. I go through the same protracted procedure with my left boot and feel as though I have made a huge achievement. Socks, shin pads and shorts come off without too much effort; I then peel off the stinking shirt, which clings, tightly to my body. I try to throw it into the bag with the rest of the kit but as with everything I’ve attempted today, I’m hopelessly off target. With a slight shudder, I manage to stand and remove my underwear, before taking the painful walk to the shower. It’s only now that I realise how many blisters I have on my feet, forcing me into involuntary skips and jumps to avoid putting pressure on the damaged areas. I feel as though I’m walking over a bed of hot coals, although all the heat is coming from my own body rather than the cold and suddenly jagged floor. The showers are, of course, freezing cold. Each jet of water attacks my body like a thousand tiny ice shards. Again I’m forced to move more quickly than my body would wish to do as I move away from the stream of water, stubbing my toe against the wall in the process. After the briefest possible time back under the shower I head back to the bench, slowly drying myself as I go.

The atmosphere in the room has perked up; plans are being made to head back to The Flyer for a Post Mortem on the mornings events. The walk to the car is a tentative and painful one, I appear to have developed a slow-motion version of the Charlie Chaplin comedy walk as I tentatively wobble from one foot to the next. In the car, the cassette player blasts into action with the remainder of “Into the Valley” by The Skids, booming out. On the way to game, the confidently shouted chorus had hit the perfect tone of exuberant excitement as we drove into uncharted territory, now however it’s far too strident and bold. My left hand automatically flicks out to the volume switch so that Richard Jobson and chums are whispering, rather than roaring from the speakers.

Phil is sitting behind the bar as we go in.

“Sorry about that lads, I just got frustrated, I guess that I’d be kidding myself into thinking that I could just pick up from the last time I played.”

“There are a few of us like that,” Trev replied. “I just didn’t think that it could be that bad.”

Rob appears alongside us.

“Come on lads, we weren’t that bad. I know we didn’t have many chances but we kept going. It’s all about fitness and awareness, that comes from playing games. The more we play the better we will be. This is just the start.”

“Really,” I say. “I’m not sure I can do that again.”

“Why not?” Rob replies. “After your little accident with the first goal, I thought you were one of our best players,” he continues.

“Yeah Jonsey, if you are going to take a dive make sure that someone is within kicking distance of you, that was just embarrassing,” says Nige.

“All right, I know I was a shambles, don’t think I completed a single pass.”

“Shut up, you got some great tackles in during the second half. That was just a game to get us in the swing of things, after a few more of those you’ll be fine,” says Rob.

During the next hour or so I notice than Rob is having a similar conversation with everyone. Playing up all the good parts in peoples’ games, whilst dismissing any perceived weaknesses. He even has a good word for Phil, persuading him that anyone would have snapped in similar circumstances, I have to say that I wasn’t so sure about this line of argument. I reckon that Phil would be better pulling pints than pushing wingers.

His persuasive words must have worked on everyone, three weeks later we were at it again. The game was arranged at fairly short notice against a team of Ad’s workmates, luckily the three week gap had just about given my broken mind and body time to recover from the trauma of the first game, and I was actually looking forward to putting a few things right. A few of us had been meeting for a fairly gentle, run and stretching session a couple of times a week, I was starting to feel a little fitter, which I figured would give me a chance of playing at a level which I was happier with. Thankfully for all of us, Phil was going to be away at a family wedding, so any clever forwards that were due to play against us, didn’t have to worry about an eighteen-stone man jumping all over them.

Without Rob’s individual pep talks, I feel pretty sure that I, and many of the other lads, would never have pulled on a pair of football boots again. He’d managed to convince us that the only thing stopping us from being good players in a good team, was familiarity with playing. He was sure that we had the ability, temperament and attitude to play, we just need to give ourselves the chance to get used to playing and the rest would fall into place.

Rob has the wonderful gift of making people feel good about themselves, he has even been known to coax a sensible sentence or two out of Deano, something that is way beyond most of us. Without his coaxing, many of us would have given up on the idea of playing football again after that first match, because of him we find ourselves far from home and ready to play.

 

6

Closing time has eventually arrived and the lads are slowly making their way to the van, not that the evening has finished yet. Plans are being hatched for a card school back at the Green Lodge. Trev is trying to persuade the girls that they should come back with us but Janine is having none of it.

“Why would I want to watch a load of drunken lad’s playing cards? Anyway, I’ve got work in the morning and it’s way past my bedtime already.”

“Oh come on, I don’t believe you go to bed this early, anyway this is a special occasion. You have foreign guests to entertain, I’m sure that your boss won’t mind you being a little off the pace in the morning,” Trev replies.

“I’m afraid she would, those cows won’t milk themselves you know.”

“You’re a milk maid! How perfect.”

“Glad you think so.”

“Everyone in? I shout”

“Yes, hit the road,” shouts Ad’s

“Anything behind me? I need to reverse out of here,” I ask.

“It’s fine, go on,” Tobe’s replies.

I head back at a slow pace, suddenly the interior of the van is brightly illuminated and a horn is being loudly sounded. I slam the brakes on.

“I thought you said it was clear,” I shout

“That’s what happens if you ask a drunk man,” says Tobe’s. “Shouldn’t take my word for things when I’ve been drinking all day. It’s not my fault, you should have known that.”

“How can I….” I start to reply, then stop. I’ve had too many attempts at trying to have a debate with some of this lot when they are pissed. I’ve finally seen that there is no logic in the world of the drunk. You can have every point in your favour, have dismantled all their twisted logic and then they will come up with a ridiculous detail and claim that it proves that they are right. Best just to leave them to it and walk away, however that’s not an option tonight, as I have to get them all back to the Hotel.

Janine and Suzanne are sitting in the front of the van with me, we exchange weary glances and I realize that they have had to put up with much more drunken bullshit from men over the years than I ever shall. Pretty soon they’ve guided me back to their Mum’s place, they say a quick goodbye to everyone, and they are gone. Trev and Rich take their place in the front.

“Don’t get too fresh with Janine Trev, she’s family you know. I don’t want you making things awkward for me here,” Rich warns Trev.

“Calm down mate, she’s making all the running, I can’t help it if she fancies me, can I?” He replies.

“Ya reckon? That’s not what I see going on. Just keep it calm mate and everyone will be fine,” says Rich.

The rest of the van is quiet, so I turn the music up to fill the void. It’s The Smiths and pretty soon everyone, other than Trev, is crooning along and doing their best Morrissey style arm waving to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable now”.

Back at the Green Lodge most of the lads head towards the bar, I’m the last to go into the hotel and Shane greets me at the door.

“Good evening young man, hope you found your way around without too many problems.”

“Yes thanks, It’s been a long day though, think I might just sneak up to bed.”

“Very wise sir, that should mean that you will be in fine fettle tomorrow.”

“Not sure that you can say that about all our lads though,” I reply. “You may have a long night ahead of you.”

“That’s why I’m here. Hope you sleep well.”

I go up to my room and in no time at all I’m as dead to the world as Elvis. The next thing I’m aware of is the sound of the rain and a vague sense that it must be morning. The other bed in the room is untouched so it looks as though Rob didn’t make it upstairs. I find my watch, it’s just after 9 and I realize that I’m starving. I didn’t bother unpacking last night and decide that there is at least another day of use in the clothes that I had on yesterday, so I throw those on and head downstairs. The place is very quiet but just as I get to the bottom of the stairs I start to hear the sound of a radio from the direction of the bar. I open the door and go in.

“Good morning,” says Shane.

“Hi Shane, was it a late night for you?”

“I’ve had later, mind you a few of them didn’t make it upstairs,” he indicates with his eyes to the corner of the bar behind me where Rob and Deano are slumped.

“Typical of those two,” I say.

“They were no trouble, so I expect you would like some breakfast. Full Irish ok for you or are one of those rare travellers who prefers a Continental?”

“No, I’m starving. I’ll have a full breakfast please.”

“Lovely, I’ll just go and let Claire know.”

He glides out of the room and I ponder over the prospect of waking Rob and Deano but think better of it and decide to leave them to their uncomfortable looking sleep.

In the grey light of the morning it’s clear that The Green Lodge has seen better days; most of the furniture is showing its age and the main window looking out towards the car park in front of the Hotel has a large crack running from top to bottom. The pattern of the raindrops falling down the window is violently skewed as it hits the fault line. Looking around the room I notice a bookshelf and wander over to take a look. It’s full of travel books and guides to the delights of the local area, picture after picture of hills and fields. Why do people want to go and look at countryside? I swear that I’ll never understand the attraction of a muddy field and some old tree’s. If I do change my mind though, this is obviously the place to come. The smell of frying bacon starts to drift past me, time to have a look in the dining room.

I push open the door and find a fairly dispiriting looking room, lots of basic looking square metal legged tables with place settings for four people and a centre piece of plastic flowers. None of the chairs appear to match, some of them are comically low, out of curiosity I stiffly edge down onto one of these chairs and the find the table is roughly at chin height for me, of course at that very moment the door from the kitchen swings open and a middle aged woman comes quickly into the room.

“Good morning to you, coffee or tea?” She asks as a large grin spreads across her face.

“Oh, um, coffee please,” I say trying to rise from the chair with some degree of grace.

“I think that one’s a little on the small side for you, but I expect you worked that out for yourself there.”

“Yes, it is a little low down, I’ll, um, move, sorry.”

“Any of the others coming down?”

“Not that I know of, it sounded pretty quiet when I got up.”

“I expect they’ll be down soon; in my experience few things move young men like the smell of a cooked breakfast. I’d guess that you’ll be having some company soon.”

With that, she turns quickly on her heels and moves back to the kitchen.

The room is sparsely decorated, the only visual point of interest is a wide picture of what I think is the Forth Bridge, which is actually cut in two and displayed in a couple of adjoining frames of differing sizes. I get up from my seat to take a close look, on closer inspection it looks as though it’s not even a proper poster, it probably was taken from a broadsheet newspaper or a magazine and in places it has faded so much as to be hardly visible. I wonder what prompted someone to pluck this picture and decide that it had to be mounted so quickly that they couldn’t possibly wait until they had a frame that was the right size for the picture. No, it had to go up straight away, if that means cutting it into oddly sized segments, so be it.

Now settled in a chair that matches my build a little better, I have a clear view out to the fields behind the hotel and a very drab view it is. The fields are messy, muddy and are occasionally dotted with buildings and what I assume must be farm equipment all of which are in a dilapidated state. I can never understand why older people go on about the wonders of the countryside, in my experience it’s the dullest, dirtiest most miserable place to spend anytime. If you do venture into it, the chances are that you will come home with some sort of animal crap on you after traipsing around for hours with nothing to see and no-one to talk to. It’s a place where stagnation and decay rule, I’ll take the allegedly dirty, smelly, dangerous town over the country every time.

Suddenly the door of the dining room swings open and in walks an elderly man, vigorously shaking the rain off a small bright pink umbrella. When the umbrella drops down I can see that he is wearing a rather natty ensemble of a Manchester United bobble hat, a paisley scarf, a heavy looking brown checked dressing gown, red tracksuit trousers and a pair of working man’s boots which appeared to be covered with the sort of detritus which I had just been thinking about.

“Morningyoungmanwherearemyslipperswhathasshedonewithmyslippers?”

“Theyshouldbebythedoor,don’ttellmei’mnotwelcome, justbecauseafewbritshavecomeoverforakickabout”

“Sorry?” I say, unable to keep pace with his rapid-fire delivery.

“Myslipperstheyshouldbebythedoor CLAIRE, CLAIREWHEREAREMYSLIPPERS?” He shouts toward the kitchen.

Clair comes into the room with a mug of coffee in her hand.

“Finbarr McCafferty, don’t you be shouting at me like that! Look at the state of you, I thought we agreed that you were going to get dressed properly before coming in for breakfast today. I don’t want you intimidating my guests,” she turns to me. “I’m so sorry

Mr. McCafferty lives next door and we have an arrangement regarding breakfast with him, I hope you don’t mind?”

“No, no, that’s fine,” I say, taking the mug from her outstretched hand.

“Whathaveyoudonewiththem?Ican’thavebreakfastinmybootsIneedmyslipperswoman.”

“Sit down and take those filthy boots off, I put your slippers in the kitchen, give me a moment.”

Mr. McCafferty, looks around the virtually empty dining room before fixing me with a steely glare “Hmph,” he sighs before casting his eyes around the place again. Once again, his visual journey around the room ends with him looking in my direction and sighing heavily.

“Oh,” I say. “Is this where you normally sit? Sorry, I’ll move.”

I start to get up from the chair, but he quickly strides towards me.

“Nonostaythereyoungfellow.SitsitI’llgonexttoyou.”

He pulls out the chair and sits down with a heavy thud.

“Pullthatoffformewillyou.”

The boot on his right foot has been lifted a couple of inches from the floor and is proffered in my direction. At some stage, I’m sure that it must have emerged, bright and shiny from a firm box, maybe with some paper carefully wrapped around it to stop it from being blemished by its brother or maybe sister boot. A comforting leathery smell would have gently enveloped the nostrils of the new guardian of the footwear and the beautiful relationship between man and his boot was about to begin. Few relationships are closer than that of a man and the item that he chooses to place upon the sole of his feet.

Although women profess to love their shoes, the fickle way that they switch from pair to pair shows that the relationship is transitory, some would even say capricious. Of course they love to show off their new acquisition to friends and for a while everything is wonderful. Then one day a purchase is made, the new member of the entourage is higher, flatter, brighter, softer, firmer or whatever but it is different and suddenly more exciting than the previous model. Soon the original is featuring rather less often in footwear rota, then it’s moved from the bedroom floor to the wardrobe and it’s seldom seen again. Cast to the back of the wardrobe it emerges only on those occasional tidy up days when the flame of affection is briefly rekindled without ever really catching alight with the same level of intensity of those first few exciting weeks.

A man however will stick with his shoe until the poor thing has given everything for its master, it’s a relationship where the two parties stick together through thick and thin, literally in this case. People often say that the relationship between a man and his dog is so close that the two parties end up mirroring each other’s characteristics, though I must admit that I’m not aware of many men who have taken to cocking their leg whilst relieving themselves. The well-fitting, well-worn man’s shoe will over time reveal to the world, the true nature of the foot snugly hidden within it. The lines and contours gradually emerge to cover the previously smooth surface of the shoe, creasing it in a way that mere hands could never manage to do. Eventually when the shoe has given everything for you, it is put out of its misery and thrown away, often in several parts as the sole and uppers become ever more distant friends, the increasing intrusion of water into the area reserved for socks only whenever puddles litter the pavements, mean it has to go.

His boot is caked with all manner of unpleasantness and is being waved with ever more urgency in my direction.

“COMEON, offwithitnow, offwithit,” he demands.

Cautiously I lean forward, I notice that the laces are undone and are hanging limply down from the eyelets, at least I don’t need to worry about struggling with a difficult knot. I ease my fingers into the uppers and try to make the opening as wide as possible, in the hope that the boot will slip off without too much actual pulling on my part. Sadly, there is little room for manoeuvre, I know that at some point I shall have to take hold of that filthy heel and pull. I look back to the table in the hope that there might be a napkin that I can use to provide some sort of protective layer but sadly for me it looks as though finger wiping is not a priority in these parts.

Mr. McCafferty appears to have picked up on my discomfort and train of thought.

“AH, holdonnowholdon, usethis,” he rattles off as he reaches into the pocket of his dressing gown to pull out a large and obviously very well used handkerchief along with various sweet wrappers and a couple of those stubby pens that you can only find in bookmakers.

“Thereyougoyoungfella,” he says.

“Thanks”, I mumble, appreciating his offer of help but distressed that I now have to take hold of another disgusting item to help Mr. McCafferty prepare for his breakfast.

The handkerchief is not only, obviously damp but also distressingly lumpy and green in certain parts. It’s clear that Mr. McCafferty has used this item for most of his adult life without seeing the need to expose it to any sort of hot water and soap combination and now, generous soul that he is, he’s offering it to me.

I desperately scan the fetid piece of cloth for some dry areas, which I may be able to hold without too much fear of contamination. I find that two diagonally opposing corners are dry and rough to the touch, so gingerly taking those between my thumbs and forefingers I then try to wrap it around the heel of Mr. McCafferty’s right boot in order to pull at the hard plastic base of his footwear.

Mr. McCafferty makes no effort to pull his foot in the opposite direction of my efforts, in fact if anything he appears to be just letting his leg drift around in whichever direction I am pulling it.

“Try to pull your foot out,” I say as he starts to slide off his chair and towards me. I pull again and the handkerchief slips against the surface of the boot, falls from my feeble grasp, leaving my now naked fingers holding the slimy boot in my hands.

“Oh Christ!” I yell.

“Comeonladstopmakingsuchasongdanceaboutthiswillyou. Justgetmybootoff.”

What the hell, my hands are covered with sixty years of snot and phlegm along with a sizeable amount of mud and God knows what else, I may as well just bend down, grab it fully and finish it off. So, I do this.

The force of my thrust takes Mr. McCafferty by surprise, so as well as the boot departing rapidly from its job of enclosing his foot and flying through my slippery grip, he himself zooms forward, his foot going upward at great speed before it is stopped by the weight of my chin. Causing me to bite my lip as my glasses fly across the room. He lands with a thud on the floor, pulling the table and a shower of crockery and cutlery onto him and me as he goes.

There is a second of two of stunned silence before the doors to the bar and kitchen are thrown open.

“Jonsey! What are you doing?” Shouts a suddenly wide-awake Rob.

“Mr. McCafferty that’s it!” Shouts Claire. “I asked you not to cause me a problem with these boys and here you fighting with them in my breakfast room. Who do you think you are?”

“He wasn’t fighting,” I offer. We were just trying to get his boot off and ….well, um things went a bit wrong.”

“I’ll say they did,” she replies. Come away from there now, let me clear that mess up.”

No, no I’ll do it,” says Rob. “Please, leave it to me.”

Mr. McCafferty has now picked himself up from the floor and much to my amazement has without any apparent commotion removed his other boot.

“Didyoufindthoseslippers?” he asks.

 

7

 

“You’d better go and clean up a bit before I bring your breakfast through,” says Claire. “There’s soap in the gents toilet next to the bar.”

“Yeah, looks like I’ve been working the fields,” I say, “see you in a minute.”

I walk quickly past Rob who is smiling broadly and head into the bar where Deano is just starting to wake up. Rather than trying to explain what has just happened, I briefly wave at him and keep walking. As it takes Deano around a minute to compose any sort of sentence, I know that he’s not going to call me back to explain why the hand that I just waved at him looks as though it been used for picking potatoes.

The toilet is a grim and despondent place. Freezing cold, stinking of last night’s deposits, plaster bubbling from the exterior wall as huge swathes of dampness do their best to dismantle this desolate room. Then again, I’ve seen worse. If you spent any time out and about listening to music in Bristol, you soon worked out that sanitation costs came pretty far down the priority list on most club owners’ lists of must haves. Near the top of the list was obviously cynical, sneering, condescending door staff. The greatest joy that these bloated individuals had in life, came from keeping you out of their sparsely attended clubs.

Any reason would do – wrong shoes, wrong trousers, wrong haircut, wrong shirt, wrong age, wrong number of people in your group. It wasn’t just the punters that were treated badly though, the hired hands appeared to hate the bands that played as well. In one venue if a headline band stopped playing for more than around thirty seconds, the houselights would flash on and the confused crowd would be ushered towards the doors with virtually full glasses of beer being dexterously plucked from their grasp before anyone knew what was happening. Bands would stare on in confusion as the crowds were ushered away from them, local bands tend to know the score and would zip quickly between songs in order to avoid a premature end to their set.

In places like this, toilets facilities were grudgingly provided. Doors appeared to be an optional extra, toilet paper never seen. Hot water had apparently not been invented yet and if you wanted to dry your hands after exposing them to the dribble of cold water that would splutter from the one working tap, well, you had better use your clothing to dry your hands as any form of towel was a luxury which was yet to arrive in this glamorous location.

With several years serious gig going years under my belt, I felt right at home in the decidedly spartan conditions within the toilets where I now found myself. There was, as promised some soap balanced on the lip of a dull blue sink. Dry, cracked , dotted with strange small black lumps it may be, but it was at least something to help me work on the unseemly mess that my hands had become. I have to admit that I’ve never been one of those lads who “loves getting his hands dirty”. I pride myself on avoiding any sort of manual work, in fact the closest that my hands would normally get to their current unpleasant state was when I could be found cleaning my football boots. From a young age, Dad had drilled the importance of starting a game with my boots in pristine condition into me. The post-match boot cleaning ritual was firmly established, arrive home, tell Mum the score, grab the largest newspaper that I could find and spread it over a large area of the floor in our back room. Remove my boots from the plastic carrier bag and place on the paper. The worst of the excesses of mud would have already been removed by smacking the soles of the boots together as violently as possible outside the changing rooms after the match, the air full with equal measures of flying mud and the wonderful cracking sound of football studs crashing into each other at high speed. I think we had as many mud in the eye injuries as we had more conventional football ones.

As soon as the boots were laid to rest upon last weeks Sunday Times the tricky business of removing the laces would begin. This was fiddly, dirty work and almost every week I would curse myself for having chewed off my nails, making the extraction of the snuggly fitting lace from the eyelets a tricky process, especially if the laces had become swollen by water and mud over the preceding couple of hours. Eventually though, they would emerge, pulled the length of the boot hole by hole, with an ever more satisfying swish.

By this time Mum or more usually Dad would have placed a washing-up bowl, half filled with warm water alongside me. The laces would be deposited swiftly into the bowl and then left to soak for a minute or two before being rubbed, flicked and stroked until every last vestige of that morning’s mini Wembley was removed from them. They would then be laid out as flat as possible on the paper to dry.

Time now to use the other tools of my temporary trade, Stud spanner, knife and a J-Cloth. Firstly, all the screw-in studs would need to be removed. Of course I should just pause here a moment to mention the enormous pride I and I guess every other football mad young boy feels when he moves from boots with moulded rubber studs which form the base of his boot, to boots with removable nylon or metal studs (I was never really sure what sort of metal they were, but Rich Baker assured me this his were made of Silver!) just like the professionals wear. It’s like wearing your first pair of long trousers to school after all those cold winter years in short trousers, like the first time you “see” a difference after running your Dad’s razor blade over your previously slightly fuzzy chin, the first sip of that magical glistening fizzy brown liquid called Beer. Suddenly you are changed forever, sophisticated, mature and worldly wise, you mock the youngsters left trailing in your wake.

Of course, you soon realise that your new status is not quite the wonder that you dreamt it would be. The new studs are prone to removing themselves, half way through a game, unless they are screwed in with a super human force. Causing you to lose your footing at that crucial moment of the match. That first realisation that once your long trousers are wet because you have decided to splash through the puddles on the way to school, they will stay wet ALL day and not only that, as the day goes on the dampness edges ever further up your leg, as fibre comes into contact with fibre, edging higher and higher, creating a cold damp blanket around your skinny shivering legs. The joy of the first shave, soon turns to misery as you become adept at slicing the top off pimples, causing puss and blood to ooze for hours behind the quickly dabbed tissue which you now treasure more than anything. And then there is Beer, well after all the years of anticipation, the marvelling at it’s wonderful colour, hearing the vast array of compliments bestowed upon the huge range of pints you have seen paraded before you by every male over the age of about sixteen, when you actually get around to trying some it tastes awful, not just odd or strange but absolutely and terrifyingly awful.

Anyway, back to the boots, Studs would be unscrewed and placed in the bowl of water, to soak away any remaining mud. Using the knife and a now damp J-Cloth the sole of the boot would be cleared of any remnants from the pitch, before working on the leather uppers of the boot. Once all traces of that morning’s activity had been removed it was time to apply black polish to the uppers. All the while, taking very special care to avoid getting any polish on the few white stripes along the side of the boot, which would be the makers hallmark. Finally, after allowing the boots to stand and absorb the polish for a while, a protective coat of Dubbin would be added to the surface. In the gap between the application of the polish and that of the Dubbin, Dad and I discuss that mornings game.

Dad would always come to watch the games; in fact, he became an integral part of the school team set up when he offered to help ferry the boys around in the back of his large blue Volvo. Not many of the other parents appeared to be too bothered about watching a group of clueless eleven year olds running around with huge amounts of energy but very little direction. One exception was the fearsome Mrs. Cook, whose son Lee was a pretty hopeless winger, no matter what the weather was she would always appear on the side lines just as the game was about to start. With the statuesque physique of a Soviet body builder, she would rush up and down the line muttering threats to anyone who came close to her beloved son. As soon as the game ended, she was off, much to the relief of any of the opposition who may have given Lee a hard time.

I say that Dad always came to watch me play but after one tense and unusually noisy week at home he didn’t appear on Thursday evening for tea as he normally did. Mum was very, very quiet and even I could tell that something was wrong.

“Why are we starting without Dad?”

“Ask him when you see him,” Mum softly replied.

“When will that be?”

“I’m not….just eat this now, come on. Then you can watch Top of the Pops.”

“Will Dad be home then?”

“Maybe, I don’t know, just eat up will you.”

Well he didn’t appear for Top of the Pops, or even by the time I had to go to bed. I was woken by the sound of the telephone in the hallway, which was a shock as the phone was seldom used after 9 o’ clock and the green glowing figures on my bedside clock told me that it was almost five to ten. Carefully easing myself from the bed I made my way to the door and pulled it open a fraction. I couldn’t hear much of what was being said. In fact, for long periods of time Mum didn’t appear to be saying anything at all. Maybe the person of the other end of the phone had stopped talking and she had just fallen asleep, it was really late after all. Then suddenly she blurted out,

“No, no that’s not fair, don’t say that!”

Then it went quiet again, other than the occasional sound of her blowing her nose. In my anxiousness to find out what was going on, I fully opened my bedroom door and got down on all fours to crawl toward the stair landing, hoping to see as well as hear what was happening. My Mother was sitting on a tread near the bottom of the stairs, something I’d never seen her do before. The hand that wasn’t holding the phone to her ear was raking through her normally rigid hair with increasing regularity. Still, few words were coming from her. Then suddenly she put the phone down and held her head in her hands, her back and shoulders gently shaking. I didn’t know what to do, so I just crawled back to bed pulled up the covers and eventually went to sleep.

Mum woke me the next morning.

“Come on, it’s time to get up. I think I’ll walk you into school today. That’ll make a nice change.”

Dad normally dropped me off in the car, so I guessed that he still wasn’t around.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“Oh he’s had to go off for a while. We’ll be ok though; it’ll be our little adventure.”

Not much else was said during breakfast or the walk to school. Oddly in the afternoon break Mr. Evans, the sports teacher, came up to me and said that he would pick me up for the game tomorrow morning, as he knew that Dad wouldn’t be able to make it. How did Mr. Evans know that Dad wouldn’t be around for the game? What was going on?

Friday night saw the same sort of routine as Thursday had, although this time we didn’t have Top of the Pops to distract us. It was an edgy awkward night with Mum looking as though she was going to burst into tears at any moment. To be honest it was a relief to go to bed at least things were the same in my room as they always were. I slept pretty well and woke early, looking forward to the game. Mum fussed around more than normal, asking me again and again,

“Have you got everything?” “Have you got your boots?”, “What time does the game start?”

I was relieved when Mr. Evans turned up. As soon as his car pulled up outside the house, I dashed out, “See you later Mum,” I shouted, and I was in the car before she had a chance to respond.

It was a foul day and the squeak of the wipers smudging the rain across the windscreen of the rusting minibus, which Mr. Evans uses to take the team to games was providing a strangely hypnotic rhythm. We collect the rest of the boys from the school and head off.

“Where’s the game being played Sir,” I ask after the incessant squeaks start to finally drive me to distraction.

“Kingswood.”

“Where’s that?”

“About ten minutes away.”

And sure enough about ten minutes later we swerve into a car park and park up.

“Over there boys, the red door, that’s where the changing rooms are.”

We dash across the puddle covered tarmac and into the changing rooms, jostling for the best place to sit, Mr. Evans struggles through the door with the kit bag.

“Five minutes boys”, he shouts and then heads back to the corridor.

“How come your Dad didn’t bring you?” asks Lee.

“He had to go to London,” I blurt out! Why did I say that? No one from round here ever goes to London, why would my dad have gone today?

“Really? Wow, didn’t you want to go?” asks Lee.

“He wanted me to go but I said that I had to play in this game, so he had to go without me.”

“Has your Mum gone?”

“Course not, women don’t go to London. She’s at home. Anyway it’s time for the game, come on.” I rush out to avoid having to make up any more nonsense.

The game starts. The pitch is muddy, our opponents much bigger and better than us and I’m having a shocker. Everything I do goes wrong and my teammates are getting fed up with me. My attention starts to drift and then suddenly I notice that Dad’s blue Volvo is pulling into the car park. I try to concentrate on the game, but my vision is drawn to the car, the large blue door swings open and my dad steps out. The game goes on around me, I try to re-join the action; I don’t want Dad to see me letting the team down. Suddenly I’m running at twice the speed of the other players. I win a tackle and pass to a teammate who almost scores. I can feel Dad’s eyes watching me, but I keep my head down, watching the ball, getting the ball, going around one player, two players, just the keeper to beat now and I hit the ball as hard as I can. It’s past the keeper before he can move.

“Great goal, Jonsey,” shouts someone. I turn to where I think my Dad is just in time to see the Volvo pulling out of the car park.

8

 

Gradually the rest of the lads make it downstairs for breakfast, as each of them enter the room Rob introduces them to Mr. McCafferty and brings them up to date the events of the morning.

Having completed his breakfast Mr. McCafferty stayed in the room with us, producing a tightly folded newspaper from the pocket of his Dressing Gown, he is a study in determined concentration as he works his way through the Racing pages carefully making notes in a tiny pocket notebook.

The game against the local Hurling team has apparently been arranged for 6pm, so we have to work out what to do for the rest of the day. Inevitably drinking appears to be the thing on most peoples’ minds.

“What’s the plan then boss?” Ads asks Trev.

“Well I don’t think that we should just sit here drinking all day,” Trev responds. “If we do that we might as well not bother with the game.”

“Let’s go into town and have a look around,” Rob chips in. “We’ve come a long way so we should have a proper scout about.”

“Rich, are your lovely cousins going to be around? Trev asks.

“Well they should be working but this is Ireland, so you never know. Let’s head into town and see if they are around. You ok to drive us in Jonsey, or should we get some taxi’s sorted?”

“Yeah, I’ll drive we might as well try to stick together, you just know what will happen if we split up, pretty soon we’ll only have enough players for a five-a-side game tonight.”

Ten minutes later everyone is in the van and “Shot by both sides” by Magazine is bouncing around the tin box as we head towards the town. It’s a song and band that marked the start of the change in my friendship with Trev.

Back at the end of the seventies, I initially resisted the lure of Punk and it’s first cousin New Wave. Trev, I and a few others mocked the ridiculous hair and lack of basic musical ability, which was thrust at us with ever more eagerness by our beloved music papers. We stood our ground, sure in the knowledge that our superior musical choices would brush away these ignorant upstarts. It’s strange, but I vividly remember the day, or should I say night that my defences crumbled, and a new world of music came rushing into my life.

Radio Caroline aside, Trev and I had a pretty low opinion of the musical choices, which the radio offered us. The one exception to this was the late night John Peel show, on Radio 1. The likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Wishbone Ash and Camel would send me to sleep on the back of some sublime eight minute guitar soloing marvel, content in the knowledge that I was part of a select group of people who really knew what was going on. Gradually though, things started to change.

One night Peel started playing short, in fact ludicrously short, songs by The Ramones. We thought that this was a minor blip at first. The tracks were almost like the Ivor Cutler pieces which Peel would play, in that you weren’t quite sure if they were in fact comedy songs and that we just didn’t get the joke. Yet as time went on these “joke” songs started to take up more and more airtime. I well remember the shockwaves that were caused when instead of playing “Blowin’ Free” by Wishbone Ash, he announced that he would play “Jocko Homo” by Devo! This was a song so devoid of craft, skill or talent that it caused Trev to break his radio by throwing his copy of the “NME Book of Rock” at the set in a rage, as he sadly told me the next day.

“What’s going on?” He pleaded. “Real music is dying, it’s got to stop. I’m going to write to Peel to complain,” he went on.

It was clear that this music was gradually taking control. Suddenly we saw names like The Clash, Damned, X-Ray Spex and others emblazoned across the back of a few of the haversacks which some of the boys in school used to carry their school books around. One day one of the lads in the year below us turned up with a safety pin stuck in his cheek, when he refused to remove it, he was sent home, but it was clear that something was happening.

Trev and I refused to budge, mocking these new musical converts at every opportunity, however we found ourselves evermore outnumbered and mocked as hippies and dinosaurs because of our allegiance to long hair and longer songs. Trousers were the other thing that started to change rapidly. Whilst we lounged around in voluminous flares with patch pockets on the side, all around us trouser width was depleting as rapidly as our credibility.

In the midst of our hour of need, Peel twisted the knife even deeper. I still listened to the show but with a growing sense of futility. In the summer of 1978 Trev and I both left school but remained firm allies when we would meet up to discuss new musical purchases or plan gigs to see.

Then one night in December it happened! At the end of the year, Peel asked his listeners to send in a postcard listing their three favourite songs; these would then be fashioned into a top 50 chart to be broadcast over successive nights during the Christmas period. Every evening at 10p.m. the familiar but nameless bluesy theme tune to the show would start up and I would listen anxiously to hear what the people, I had considered until very recently to be my peer group, had chosen.

As Peel introduced each song from numbers 50 to 1, I finally realise how completely things had changed. For the occasional sighting of something from Pink Floyd or Lynyrd Skynyrd, I would have to put up with endless songs from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks and the Rezillos. Initially this causes me great distress, when Trev and I talked the next day we rush to outdo each other with our outrage.

“Did you hear it? How can “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” be higher than “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”? It’s madness,” I spluttered over the phone.

“Not just that, how can there be 28 songs higher than “Shine On You Crazy Diamond?” Trev shouts back. “The only thing that can possibly be above it is “Stairway To Heaven”, Peel should have stopped it. It’s all his fault. I’m finished with him.”

“Me too” I reply.

And yet, although I couldn’t admit it to Trev, some of these songs were starting to break their way through the barriers I had so carefully constructed. Maybe Siouxsie and her Banshees were onto something with the carefully constructed slow menace of songs like “Switch” and “Overground” and The Stranglers had some nice keyboard riffs in some of their songs.

The next night was shocking. Bowie was in at 16 with “Heroes”, fair enough. Then came the trauma of “White Riot” by The Clash. A song, if you can call something, which doesn’t even make it to the 2-minute mark a song, which consists of unintelligible ranting over the scratchiest, most inane musical backing you can imagine. Somehow this was rated as the 15th best song in the world!!! Then at number 14, some degree of sanity. The beautifully constructed and unmistakable acoustic introduction to “Stairway To Heaven”. Time to sit back and luxuriate in the 8 minutes of musical splendour. Oh yes, this is real music for grown-ups, considered, mature, reasoned, rational, epic in its scope and concept. And then it was gone, what next? What could be better than that? Then some pounding Tom-Tom drums start up and The Damned rush at me with “New Rose”, at least it makes it past the 2 minute mark and then it rushes towards it’s frenetic climax. Something about the blitzkrieg ending did appeal but I pushed that thought to the back of my mind as quickly as possible.

The next night would be the top ten, Trev had told me that he wouldn’t be listening and it was all obviously rigged and there wouldn’t be anything worth hearing. For the sake of completeness, I couldn’t just leave it there, I needed to hear how things finished up.

The countdown began with “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones, a regular feature of the Peel show and a song I had learnt to tolerate if not love. The next song, more swirling anger in the form of “Public Image” by Public Image Limited and I found my foot tapping along, as the vitriol spewed forth from Jonny Rotten or Lydon or whatever else he was called this week. Next up, Buzzzcocks with “What Do I Get?” Good pop song, I feel myself thinking for a moment before dispatching the thought from my head. The next couple of tracks come from the top echelon of all that Trev and I despise about this stupid musical form called punk, The Clash and Sex Pistols but both “White man In Hammersmith Palais” and “Pretty Vacant” sound vibrant exciting and challenging. The next one though is the killer, at number 5 a marvellous strident guitar opening leads into the sneering, arrogant vocals and now the fact that I can’t fully understand the lyrics doesn’t matter, it just sounds great. The chorus is upon us “Shot….. by both sides…. on the run…. to other side of everything. Shot…. by both sides…..they must have come…. to a secret understanding”. I’m out of the chair and jumping around the bedroom. It’s the most exhilarating song I’ve ever heard and yes, it’s got a guitar solo in but it’s only about 20 seconds long! Only 20 seconds and it’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

How can I tell Trev?

 

9

In the daylight we can see that there really isn’t much to Carlow, we go past a smattering of small houses and then, suddenly, we are on the implausibly wide main street, which passes for downtown Carlow. I park up and we head into a newsagent to load up with newspapers and fags.

The young girl behind the counter smiles as we troop in to the tiny shop.

“Morning” says Rob.

“Hello” she replies, “I guess you are the football lads from England.”

“Blimey lads, we are famous,” says Rob with a huge smile on his face, “say hello to the nice lady now. We wouldn’t want her to think that we left our good manners on the other side of the Irish Sea.”

Dutifully, we all do as we are told, except Deano that is, as he needs another few minutes to prepare himself to talk to some one of the opposite sex.

“You boys staying out at The Green Lodge?”

“That’s right,” replies Trev. “So, what should we do whilst we are in the area?”

“Oh, there’s not much to do around here, you’d be better off going up to Dublin. We’ve just got farms and old men around here,”

“I don’t know, the pub we were in last night was ok,” says Rob. Maybe we will see you in there sometime?”

“You never know,” she replies. “Enjoy your day.”

Rich decides to go to his auntie’s house to catch up with her and see if Suzanne and Janine will be around, I ask if it’s ok if I come with him and he says that will be fine. The rest of the lads decide to head towards a café, which is across the road from the paper shop. Rich and I say that we will come back to meet up with the other lads at around 11:30, so that gives us around forty-five minutes.

I’ve known Rich since school days and although I wouldn’t say that we were inseparable but we’ve always been mates. He’s always been one of those people that just happens to be around, without us ever having to make specific plans to meet up.

“Your family are a laugh,” I say, as we start the short walk.

“They are that,” he replies. “My aunties amazing, her husband died in a car crash about fifteen years ago, before that she lost a son when he was just a baby. I didn’t ever meet him, he died before I was born, yet you never hear her moaning. Whenever she comes over to Bristol, she’s the centre of attention. People come from all over to see her and all she wants to do is look after them. The classic auntie stuff, have a cup of tea, you sit on this chair it’ll be more comfortable for you, giving kids a pound to spend in the shops. She’s brilliant.

“And the sisters?” How close are you to them?”

“Well, like I said last night when some of the guys started drooling, I haven’t seen them for ages. I guess that we chat on the phone a couple of times a year and Janine sends the occasional letter over.”

“So, this is a nice way of catching up with them, as long as none of the lads get out of hand!”

“They can look after themselves, those two. If they can cope with some of the big farmers around here, then they’ll have no problem with our lot.”

As we turn the corner into the Auntie Jean’s road, we can see her standing outside chatting with a couple of folks of a similar age. She looks our way and gives us a jolly wave.

“Good morning boys, I was just telling my neighbours here, what a lovely group of young men you and your pals are,” she calls out.

“Morning Aunty,” says Rich. “How are you today?”

“Fine thanks, the girls have taken the day off to spend some time with you. They were just about to call The Green Lodge to see if you were about yet. If you pop in the house there, you’ll find them.”

We move into the house and Rich shouts out:

“C’mon you two, get out of bed, we can’t be waiting around all day, we’ve got things to do!”

“Well, well, that’s rich,” comes a voice from the back of the house. “I don’t remember seeing you at dawn this morning when some of us were working the cows.”

With that Janine emerges from the kitchen with a big smile on her face and punches Rich playfully on the arm.

“Hi Jonsey, have you lost the rest of the team already?”

Before I can answer, Rich replies:

“Yes, we sent them back home to Bristol, they are noisy, smelly and crude.”

“Unlike you two charmers I suppose,” Janine cuts in.

“Of course. We are the intelligent ones come to spread our wisdom around the old country.”

“Sounds like someone’s still drunk from last night,” says Suzanne and she comes down the stairs to join us.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hi,” she replies.

“So, what shall we do today then?” asks Rich.

“Well the weathers pretty good, why don’t we drive over to the coast, have a bit of lunch and a walk about. Then we can get you back in plenty of time for your big game,” says Janine. “Maybe tomorrow you should go up to Dublin.”

“Sounds ok to me,” says Rich. “How about you Jonsey, that ok with you?”

“Yeah fine,” I reply.

“Right then, we may as well get going,” says Rich. “Get your things ready girls, you sure it’s ok for the pair of you to take the time off work?”

“It’s fine, in fact we could both do with a break. It’s a long time since we’ve done anything other than work and we need to spend some time with our favourite cousin after he’s come all this way to see us,” says Janine.

A few minutes later we’re back in the centre of town and our entry into the café causes a little consternation when the guys realise that we have female company.

“Well, the travellers return,” says Trev. “And it looks as though the workers have managed to escape from the animals to join us,” he continues.

“We thought that the farm animals could look after themselves,” says Janine. “Not so sure about you lot though,” she says whilst smiling broadly.

“What’s the plan then?” Asks Trev.

“Thought we would take a look at the coast line,” replies Rich.

“Oh, you should have said, I’d have bought my trunks!” Shouts Andy.

“Well if anything was guaranteed to scare off these girls, it would be the sight of your lardy ass squeezed into a pair of swimming trunks. Thank God, you left them at home.” Says Trev.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Janine, says. “Nothing wrong with a well-built man taking a dip in his skimpies. Mind you, you’d probably be on the front page of the Gazette the next day for offending someone.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time for Andy”, says Trev

“Leave him alone.” Janine replies. “I bet you’ve offended a few in your time.” She says to Trev.

As some of the lads start to laugh, Trev’s face starts to redden a touch.

Rob shouts out. “Come on then lads, let’s get going, we want to make the most of our time here. Ladies, after you.”

As everyone starts to move towards the door, Trev just stands and looks at Rob before saying “I had it under control mate,” he says as Rob draws level with him.

“Sure you did mate, sure you did. Just wanted to get on that’s all.”

 

10

In the morning light the roads look very rough indeed and I’m swerving all over the place to avoid the regular potholes. It’s strange that after all those years in my childhood when Dad used to drive around my mates from various teams, I now find myself doing the same thing. I guess in some part, it’s a way of making yourself part of a group without having to be the “entertainment”. Just by having a car and being happy to take people around you obtain a short cut to meeting and keeping friends.

Of course, the downside of this is that some people may see you as the cheap transport option and you can be somewhat “used”. Dad had one such friend who would arrive at our house after a night drinking in the local pub and then go on and on about all the wonderful characters that had been with him and what a laugh he’d had. Then he would suddenly realise that he had missed the last bus home and that he couldn’t afford to pay for a taxi, before, inevitably, Dad would offer to drop him home.

Suddenly Dad was this guy’s best mate in the world, and he was full of talk of how the pair of them would hit the town and what a great time they would have. Dad would just smile and nod his head, knowing full well, that the invitation would never be extended and yet hoping that next time would be different. I guess the same was true within the family as well, Dad was just expected to fit in around the plans that Mum, or I had. Looking back on the time when he wasn’t around for those few days, I remember now how much friendlier to Dad, my Mum appeared to be when he reappeared.

Previously whenever Dad asked her if she fancied going out for a walk or maybe a drive in the country, the answer would always be a pretty sharp “no”. She had things which were more important or interesting to do, if that wasn’t the case, then she would be too tired. Looking back on it now, I think that maybe Dad just got tired of asking. When he did come back, we started doing things together for a while and things were pretty good. Those few days when Dad went away were never mentioned, I don’t think I even asked him why he’d been away or where he had been. I did though, go on about the goal I had scored, and he told me that he’d heard all about it from Mr. Evans and that he was sure that I would score plenty more. Which sadly, I didn’t do.

As these thoughts were filtering through my head, our journey east was leading us ever closer to a place called Brittas Bay, which Janine assured us we would love. Living where we do, the seaside has never been a big part of my life. When the nearest beach resort is the tacky muddy mess of Weston-Super-Mare, the inner city looks very appealing. This place though was very different, miles and miles of clear sand, spread out in front of us and not a sign of any sad looking Weston donkeys to be seen.

“Hey, it’s just like Heaven Up Here,” said Rob as he jumps out the van.

Although I get the Echo and the Bunnymen reference, most of the lads are confused.

“Looks a long way from heaven to me,” says Trev. “Just a whole load on nothing.”

“Yes, but it’s a beautiful nothing, don’t you think?” Says Janine.

Ad’s climbs down from the van and smashes a football into air. “Come on lads. Let’s show off our beach football skills,” he shouts.

“Shame we didn’t get a petrol station ball,” says Rob. “If you are playing on a beach you really need one of those, anyone can be Brazilian with the way those balls swerve around”

Janine, Suzanne and Rich have started walking along the dry firm sand and I decide to join them rather than the free for all, game that has started up.

“So, do you recognize this place?’ Janine says to Rich.

“No, should I?” He replies.

“Did you never see a picture of your Granda and Grandma in their wedding clothes on the beach?”

“Yeah, was that here?”

“It was indeed. Granda was born in a village just along the road there and they got married in the church here at Brittas Bay. I’ve only ever seen a couple of pictures from the wedding and one was taken somewhere on the beach here.”

“Well, how amazing. Mum will be chuffed when I tell her” Rich replies.

As the cousins discuss old family stories, I just fall in step with them, as we walk along the beach. Not being able to contribute but enjoying hearing about some interesting old characters. After a while Suzanne turns to me and says.

“This must be awful dull for you, Jonsey.”

“No, it’s fine,” I reply. “It’s nice to have a walk without all the others around.”

“Have you got much family? She asks.

“Not really,” I say. “Nothing on my dad’s side. A few relatives in Wales but we don’t see much of each other.”

“Would you like to?”

“Never really thought about it, although when I hear you lot chatting away it sounds nice. It’s good to have that instant link with people that you don’t see very often.”

“True, but it can be an awful pain sometimes as well. You spend a lot of time doing things that all the other people want you to do. Woe betide you, if you don’t fancy spending the nicest day of the year cooped up in a house with a dozen other relies.”

“Can’t say I’ve had that experience very often,” I reply.

“So, tell me about Bristol then, it’s awful big I hear. You lads would soon get bored in a little place like this.”

“I guess it’s just what you’re used to. I’ve only ever lived in Bristol, so I guess I take it for granted. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else.”

“What if you could go anywhere, where would you go.” She asked.

“Well it would have to be a city and I’m no good at languages, so they’d have to speak English there.”

“Oh yeah,  with me,” she said. “I’m hopeless at anything else. So, it’s England, America or maybe Canada.”

“Maybe Scotland or Wales, could try Glasgow or Cardiff.”

“So, it would have to be a big city then?” she asked.

“I think so, most of my time is spent going to see bands and well, sad to say, I don’t expect that too many bands appear around here.”

“Ah, you’re right there. We have to make our own fun, that’s for sure.”

By now we’ve walked round, back to the rest of the lads and the talk is of finding a pub for some lunchtime refreshments. Janine knows a place just along the main street, so a few minutes later the lads are jostling for position in front of the bar.

Guinness, fish and chips, appears to be the choice of the day, so that’s what we go for. Apart from me of course, I go for my normal orange juice and lemonade selection.

“Let’s not get too carried away here boys,” says Trev. “Save your real drinking heads for after the match.”

“OK boss,” comes the reply.

I have my doubts though.

 

 

 

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The Gathering

These little gatherings are getting rather regular recently, bit-by-bit the family come together and the conversations start to flow after hesitant starts. At the moment it’s just my youngest brother Ted, his wife June and me that are here but the others will come, they always come. Last time Phil, my oldest brother was the one who prompted a meeting like this but he won’t be joining us now.

Ted’s great, he’s just told us a funny story about the time he lost his house keys and had to get in through the window. We started laughing about him trying to get in through a window these days! Luckily it happened back in Rangoon, a long time ago when he was much more agile and security was much looser. Don’t think that any of us could climb through a window these days.

There’s a lot to discuss but nobody wants to talk about the reason we are here, I guess they’ll be plenty of time for that later. There’s no rush any more, things will happen when they are due to happen, although I do find the waiting around very difficult.

Oh here are Kenny and Carrie, poor Carrie she always looks so awkward on these occasions. Kenny just carries on as though he is on a night out with his friends, laughing and joking, telling stories about people that he should probably keep to himself. Carrie gets so cross with him. I don’t know why, if everyone were like Carrie, we would all just sit here looking at the wall, nobody saying a word. That wouldn’t help anyone would it?

There’s a table full of snacks and drinks. Fruit, vitamin water (whatever that is?), lot’s of treats from the old country that would have been eagerly devoured in the past but not now. Now they just sit there untouched and unwanted, someone will have to take them home again, still the thought was there, people trying to ease the journey.

Sometimes in the past, we have worried that we are disturbing the other people. Not all the people around us are here for the same reason, they are entitled to their rest, and so we tend to work a shift system as we gather around the person in need. Sometimes you can spend hours in the waiting area but that’s fine, everyone helps each other along and somehow the time passes.

When we gathered for Bobby, it almost turned into a party. Now that may sound odd, some would even say it’s disrespectful but Bobby loved his family and he loved a party. There was a moment late in the evening when a man’s radio started playing an old Sinatra tune. Bobby loved Sinatra; the whole family did, so when the man noticed us looking in his direction he said sorry for the noise. We told him how much we liked it and he turned up the volume a little. Then Peg and Maurice started dancing, slowly and elegantly just like they used to do after the war in the ballroom of The Strand Hotel near the Ferry terminal in Rangoon. They not have been as steady on their feet as they once were but every step they took together bought the memories of those happy days back. Bobby looked so happy.

When I look back on it now, it’s amazing to think of the upheaval that our family has seen since those nights at The Strand, all those years ago. Many of us have travelled thousands of miles as circumstances forced us away from the place that we had called home. Yet, somehow the family bonds have stayed strong and here we are, all of those that are still alive are in this room, and it’s lovely to feel the support of the next generation as well. Even though they have only really known life in this country, they show a respect for our old ways, our need to be together, which is very touching.

It’s nice here though, we have our own room, and so we can all gather in the same place. I must have dozed off for a while because now the whole family is in here. It’s lovely to see everyone and hear everyone around me. I suppose it’s inevitable that a lot of the stories refer back to the old days. The nice thing for me is that I’ve heard them all before, so when I drift away for a little while, as I do, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I know what’s been said and I know what’s going to be said.

The talk has turned to Debbie’s wedding and it sounds like someone wanted to change the subject, thinking it was wrong to talk about something that we may all not be part of. I expect it was Milo, he is such a sensitive boy, when Freddie was going through this, it was almost like he was holding on for Milo before he let things slip away. It had been Freddie’s birthday and during the day everyone had been in to see him, no-one could tell how long Freddie was going to be in there, it could have been days or hours. Late in the day Milo arrived, he’d driven for two hours after finishing work and by that time of night you could tell the Freddie was exhausted.

When Milo came into the room, Freddie was just starting to doze, then he heard Milo say “Is Grandpa still awake” and he eyes slowly opened, he moved his face towards the sound of the voice and his face turned into a huge smile. “ Hi son, how was work? You must be tired, you didn’t need to come all this way to see me.” But you could tell that he was thrilled. Well later that night Freddie went, I guess he’d seen everyone and knew that he could just let go. The time had come, somehow Milo knew that he had to make the journey that day, there wouldn’t be another chance.

My eyes are so heavy now and my mind is tired but the talking around me is stirring memories, so many happy memories. I’ve been feeling cold most of the time recently but that’s starting to go, as I remember playing in the sun with my brothers. The smell of mother’s cooking is strong in my nose, someone is massaging my forehead now, just like mum used to do when I was a child and afraid of the dark. Well the darkness is all around me now, but with the family here I am no longer afraid. It’s time to let go. It’s time to let them all go home. Time to move on.

The Friendly Match

Our initial problem was actually getting eleven people onto the pitch for the game. On the Thursday before the match we only had seven players and to top it all we had no goalie. However we had been assured us that it would be fine, this other lot were involved in the bottom rung of Sunday league football and from what he had heard were pretty hopeless. It was just going to a run out, a chance to see if we could form a Sunday team, it was strangely exciting.

We were asking anyone with two legs under the age of fifty that we even vaguely knew if they would play. Whilst this was going on we were also trying to borrow a full kit from someone so that we could at least look like a team. On the Friday evening we gathered as normal in The Flyer, when I arrived in the bar Trev was chatting to Phil, the landlord when I joined them it sounded like Phil had been talked into playing although he obviously still had doubts.

“Just don’t expect too much from me, it’s twenty years since I’ve played and I can’t remember the last time I moved at anything more than a stroll.”

“Don’t worry Phil, you can play at the back, you won’t need to move beyond the half way line. From what I’ve heard their forwards are rubbish, it’ll be a nice little run out for you,” replied Trev.

“OK then, I think I’ve still got my old boots somewhere, God knows what state they are though.”

“Great that’s sorted then,” says Trev. “Welcome aboard.”

Trev and I wander over to our usual corner of the bar to join Rob, Deano and Ad’s.

“How’s it going lads?” asks Rob.

“Well, I’ve finally talked Phil into it,” Replies Trev. “He’s going to play at the back, oh and I’ve got a kit sorted as well. Someone that dad knows is going to drop it round to me tomorrow morning.”

“Good man, I think that you should be the manager, you obviously have the organisational skills that we are looking for,” says Rob. “Everyone else agree?”

We all say yes, Trev raises his glass and says with a grin.

“Well it’s a great honour boys, now where do we find a keeper? ‘Cause I ain’t playing in goal that’s for sure.”

“Oh, I might have some news there,” say’s Ad’s. “Turns out Lisa’s new boyfriend used to play in goal when he was in school, she’s going to ask him tonight. They should pop in here tonight, so you can talk him into it boss.”

“That’s if your sister can keep him that long, she’s got slippery fingers that one, can’t seem to hold onto anyone for more than five minutes.”

“Talk of the devil,” says Rob.

We turn to look at the door and in walks a very odd couple. Lisa is, as ever, dressed for a Hollywood red carpet premier, all high heels and exposed flesh, everything she is actually wearing glitters and shines with garish colour, all topped off with her newly coloured mass of platinum blonde curls, which bubble excitedly as she walks towards the bar. Towering over her is someone straight from rock school central casting. Long, ruler straight hair drops down his back to the base of his perfectly distressed leather jacket, which swings open to reveal a black Motorhead T-shirt, which obviously contains a suitably muscular torso. Of course he is wearing jeans, complete with some intriguing rips around the front of his thighs and the chunkiest pair of black leather bikers boots that I have ever seen.

We all turn back to look at Ad’s.

“Is that him? Asks Trev.

“Yeah he’s called Nigel apparently,” says Ad’s laughing. “Never spoken to him myself, she’s only been seeing him for about a week.”

“Well he’s tall.” I say. “That’ll come in handy.”

“Yeah but how long will it take him to dry his hair following the after match shower? Says Trev.

“Tell him that we can’t afford to pay his shampoo bills, we’ll be bankrupt before we’ve even started.” I say.

Lisa waves at us, goes up on her tiptoes to have a word in her chaps’ ear and heads over to join us.

“Hi sis, didn’t bother getting dressed up tonight then.”

“Now then Adrian, don’t be nasty to me or I won’t let Nige help you out.”

“OK, you’re right we need him, more than I need to make cheap jokes at your expense.”

“He’s a big lad,” says Rob. “Haven’t seen him around before.”

“No he lives in Clifton.”

“Blimey, how did you manage that? I thought the council had an exclusion zone around Clifton to keep gold diggers out,” said Rob with a grin.

“Who’s a gold digger? I earn more than him you know. I’m not just a pretty face.”

“So, what does he do then?”

“Well Rob, for your information he’s an actor.”

“Been in anything we would have heard of?”

“Not yet, but he’s got some things lined up.”

“TV, films, adverts?”

“Well I’m not sure but he tells me that he’s just waiting for the right offer to come along”

Nigel is now making his way over to us, Lisa does the introductions as he grabs a stool and sits down alongside her.

“So Nige, I hear you’re up for a game on Sunday?” Says Trev.

“Yes, Shelley tells me you guys haven’t played together before, so I guess you’ve got no idea of the standard?”

“Well a few of us used to be pretty good, no idea about the opposition though,” Rob chips in. “It’s a chance to cement your place in history, to be one of the original members of the glorious team that changed the face of local football in Bristol!”

“Well Rob may be over selling it somewhat,” says Trev. “It’s just a chance to have a kick about, we will have to wait and see what happens after that. When did you last play?”

“A couple of years ago, when I was up in London. Some of my mates had a Sunday team; I played five or six games, before heading back to Bristol. I’m looking forward to a bit of a run out.”

During the course of the evening we found out that with the help of a few more friends and relations we have actually got the eleven names that we need to raise a team and we start to get quite excited about the game. I have to admit that I had a big concern about my fitness levels, the couple of training sessions in the park had helped but I was still spending more time with my hands on my hips, trying to get my breath back, than punching the air after scoring a cracking goal.

Sunday morning came dry and sunny, proper first game of the season weather and at 9:30 we were standing outside the pub, kit bags in hand and looking forward to the game. The only problem was that Rob had not showed up.

“Phil, Can we use the phone in the pub to give him a call?” Trev asked.

“Sure, come with me,” he replied.

No sooner had they gone through the main door, then Rob’s car came screaming round the corner, all the windows were down and the staccato rhythms of Blue Monday by New Order was hammering out into the previously quiet Sunday morning street.

He pulled onto the pub forecourt, almost running over Nige’s foot as he did so.

“Good job you’re in goal Nige,” Rob shouted above the music. “Your footwork was a bit slow there mate.”

“Don’t worry about me mate, I’ll be fine,” Nige replied.

I went into the pub and shouted out that Rob had arrived; I can see Trev with the phone in his hand whilst Phil knocks back what looks like the remains of a glass of whiskey.

“Just to settle the nerves,” he says to me. “Want one?”

“No thanks, not really my style,” I say as I head out to join the others. We all pile into cars and take the short journey to Vassells Park and into the changing rooms. Trev opens up the kit bag and an appalling smell engulfs us all.

“What the hell is that stench?” Ad’s says.

Trev puts his hand into the bag and brings out what should be a blue and white shirt but it’s covered in dried mud and even some green mold.

“Didn’t you check it boss? Asks Rob.

“No, it was only dropped round last night, when I was out. He told me that it hadn’t been used since last season; He didn’t say it hadn’t been washed though. Sorry guys, this is going to be pretty grim.”

I grab a shirt but decide to stick with my own socks and shorts, as I slip it over my head the smell is disgusting. “I don’t think they will want to get too close to us,” I say as I dash out of the changing room as quickly as I can in an effort to get some fresh air.

Our opponents Downend Albion are looking pretty impressive, not only do they have a nice clean kit; they also have four or five balls, which they are warming up with, and a goalkeeper who has a cap – very professional. By way of contrast, we have one ball and a ‘keeper who doesn’t even have a pair of gloves. Trev smashes the ball over to me from about twenty yards; it bounces awkwardly on the lumpy pitch and catches me in the balls with a deadening thump. All the wind leaves my body and my eyes glaze over as I desperately try to give the impression that it didn’t hurt. I summon all my strength to knock the ball back to him, and the ball trickles about ten yards in a trajectory which would have seen it going about twenty yards to his right had I connected with it properly. The signs are not good.

Looking behind the goal I notice Phil, kneeling over as he throws up in a series of noisy convulsions. Deano has forgotten his boots, so is gingerly running across the grass in a pair of trainers, with the morning dew turning the grass is something of an ice rink, it looks like Dean is going to spend of lot time on his backside. Sure enough moments later he tries to change the direction of his run and down he goes with arms and legs flailing.

“C’mon lads, let’s enjoy this,” shouts Rob. “Keep the ball down, let’s try to pass it around a bit. Stay calm and let people know what’s going on around them.”

We kick off; I don’t touch the ball for what seems like an eternity. I’m running around, but my legs appear to go at half the speed of all the Downend players. Time and again I move towards the ball, only to see it knocked away from me just before I get there.

“Jonsey, get with it man,” Shouts Trev. “Don’t back off them.”

I try to shout back that I’m trying to “get with it” but nothing comes out of my pointlessly open mouth. I’m so far off the pace that a stray pass, suddenly drops at feet, no one is with forty yards of me.

“Stay calm,” I think to myself as I move towards the ball.

A thousand voices shout at once:

“Time”, “Jonsey, knock it down the channel”, “Use Rob”, “Bring it out”.

It all merges into one huge blur of noise as I dash towards the ball. Somehow, I manage to catch my foot in the grass and the next thing I know I’m falling face down onto the ball, which catches me in the nose with enough pressure to bring tears to my eyes for the second time that morning. I can hear the laughter from the Downend players as one of their forwards makes rapid ground towards me. I try to get up but slip again and he whisks the ball away from me and heads towards our goal. Seconds later the ball is in the net we are 1-0 down and it’s all my fault.

“Sorry lads,” I mumble. “How long to half time ref, I ask the Downend sub who has taken charge of the whistle.

“How long? Seriously?”

“Yes”

“About forty minutes mate. We’ve only just started!”

Somehow I make through the next forty minutes and the frequently mentioned second wind does arrive. Fortunately it provides much more impetus than the first one, which had left me decidedly becalmed. We are, by this stage, 3-0 down.

Of course we have no water, oranges or any of the traditional half time pick me up’s, though a few of the lads are enjoying a quick fag. No-one can think of anything sensible to say, so we lie on the ground in a state of shattered silence, before we know the Downend lads are trotting back onto the pitch and off we go again.

The second half continues in the same vein, us chasing the Downed players around and only briefly coming into contact with the ball. Phil is starting to look extremely agitated, and when a Downend player knocks the ball through his legs and runs around him, it’s obviously the final straw. He takes an enormous hack at the young lad, luckily missing him by a mile. He’s not finished yet though, somehow a burst of energy sees him draw level with his nemesis but instead of trying to tackle him, Phil simply jumps on his back, dragging him to the ground followed by wave after wave of fortunately poorly aimed punches.

“Nobody takes the piss out me, you little…”

“Phil, stop it, STOP!”

Shouts Rob, who is the closest player to the action. By now the Downend player has squirmed away from Phil’s grasp and running round in circles trying to get away from him. One his colleagues though has another idea on how to end the spectacle, rushing over to kick Phil’s legs from under him then gripping him round the throat he shouts in Phil’s face.

“Stop it old man, take your sorry ass off the pitch and don’t come back, or you will have me to deal with and I won’t be so reasonable next time.”

Rob, Trev and Nige coax Phil back to his feet and persuade him that maybe it would be best if he went off.

“Yeah, think I’ve pulled a muscle anyway,” says Phil as he shuffles off, the limp strangely swapping legs as he goes.

The rest game of the game is played out in a restrained manner with everyone trying to avoid anymore explosive confrontations, not that I have anything left within me to explode. I’ve never felt so drained of energy, nothing really aches it’s just as though my body feels as though it doesn’t belong to me, it won’t follow the most basic of instructions from my brain and I’m desperate for the match to end. In the last few minutes of the game Rob, who is the only member of team who can still run at this point scores a great solo goal to make the score 9-1, we shout our well done’s to him as we are all too knackered to actually run up to him and give him a well deserved slap on the back. Then the whistle blows for full time and I sink to the ground, feeling that I may very well stay there for the rest of my life.

In the changing rooms hardly a word was spoken. How had we let ourselves become so deluded, that we actually thought that we would not only give that a lot a game but that we would beat them?

“Whose idea was that? I’ve never felt so awful, every part of aches,” moaned a weary sounding Trev.

Nobody had the energy to answer him; I just sat there staring at the cold concrete floor, trying to work out how I would find the energy to take off my boots. Even my fingers were tired, as I discovered when I tried to pull the laces open. I can’t grip the end of the lace firmly enough to pull it, what has happened? You don’t even use your fingers when playing football, if they are in this state what are my legs going to like for the rest of the week?

So I just sit there, some of the other lads had started chatting but I am unable to fully register anything that is being said. As well as my body being exhausted, my brain appeared to be a spent force as well. I lift my foot again, and with all the concentration and strength that I can muster I tug at the bootlace on my right foot and just about manager to drag it free, allowing me to slowly loosen the boot. It feels as though my foot has expanded, so even though the laces have been undone, it’s still a huge effort to remove my bruised and tender foot from the boot. Eventually I manage to ease it off my heel and the boot falls to the floor with a loud snap as the metal studs come into contact with the concrete surface. I go with through the same protracted procedure with my left boot and feel as though I have made a huge achievement. Socks, shin pads and shorts come off without too much effort; I then peel off the stinking shirt, which clings, tightly to my body. I try to throw it into the bag with the rest of the kit but as with everything I’ve attempted today, I’m hopelessly off target. With a slight shudder, I manage to stand and remove my underwear, before taking the painful walk to the shower. It’s only now that I realise how many blisters I have on my feet, forcing me into involuntary skips and jumps to avoid putting pressure on the damaged areas. I feel as though I’m walking over a bed of hot coals, although all the heat is coming from my own body rather than the cold and suddenly jagged floor. The showers are, of course, freezing cold. Each jet of water attacks my body like a thousand tiny ice shards. Again I’m forced to move more quickly than my body would wish to do as I move away from the stream of water, stubbing my toe against the wall in the process. After the briefest possible time back under the shower I head back to the bench, slowly drying myself as I go.

The atmosphere in the room has perked up; plans are being made to head back to The Flyer for a Post Mortem on the mornings events. The walk to the car is a tentative and painful one, I appear to have developed a slow motion version of the Charlie Chaplin comedy walk as I tentatively wobble from one foot to the next.

Phil is sitting behind the bar as we go in.

“Sorry about that lads, I just got frustrated, I guess that I’d be kidding myself into thinking that I could just pick up from the last time I played.”

There are a few of us like that,” Trev replied. “I just didn’t think that it could be that bad.”

Rob appears alongside us.

“Come on lads, we weren’t that bad. I know we didn’t have many chances but we kept going. It’s all about fitness and awareness, that comes from playing games. The more we play the better we will be. This is just the start.”

“Really,” I say. “I’m not sure I can do that again.”

“Why not?” Rob replies. “After your little accident with the first goal, I thought you were one of our best players,” he continues.

“Yeah Jonsey, if going to take a dive make sure that someone is within kicking distance of you, that was just embarrassing,” says Nige.

“All right, I know I was a shambles, don’t think I completed a single pass.”

“Shut up, you got some great tackles in during the second half. That was just a game to get us in the swing of things, after a few more of those you’ll be fine,” says Rob.

During the next hour or so I notice than Rob is having a similar conversation with everyone. Playing up all the good parts in peoples’ games, whilst dismissing any perceived weaknesses. He even has a good word for Phil, persuading him that anyone would have snapped in similar circumstances, I have to say that I wasn’t so sure about this line of argument. I reckon that Phil would be better pulling pints than pushing wingers.

His persuasive words must have worked on everyone, three weeks later we were at it again. The game was arranged at fairly short notice against a team of Ad’s workmates, luckily the three week gap had just about given my broken mind and body time to recover from the trauma of the first game and I was actually looking forward to putting a few things right. A few of us had been meeting for a fairly gentle run and stretching session a couple of times a week, I was starting to feel a little fitter, which I figured would give me a chance of playing at a level which I was happier with. Thankfully for all of us, Phil was going to be away at a family wedding, so any clever forwards that were due to play against us, didn’t have to worry about an eighteen stone man jumping all over them.

Without Rob’s individual pep talks, I feel pretty sure that I, and many of the other lads, would never have pulled on a pair of football boots again. He’d managed to convince us that the only thing stopping us from being good players in a good team was familiarity with playing. He was sure that we had the ability, temperament and attitude to play, we just need to give ourselves the chance to get used to playing and the rest would fall into place!

That Summer Feeling

It was the sort of summer where the evenings never started, just long afternoons that went from 2 PM to 2 AM. Languid yet never dull, the hours slipped past like Bees’ gently buzzing from plant to plant. Never really stopping, just pausing momentarily before moving onto to the next brief place of interest.

 

The four of us were constantly in each other’s company. Of course it wasn’t just us four all the time, different friends came and went. There could be five or forty people but all that summer the four of us appeared to be invisibly held together, never move than a glance away. The strands of the web that held us were gossamer thin, invisible to the eye of the others that joined us. Yet to us, stretched and tenuous though they may, they were as solid and true as anything we had ever known.

 

If I raised my head from the book I was reading, then inevitably Binks would catch my eve. If it wasn’t Binks then the same would be true for either Tommo or Jags. Dancing in a club to the song of the summer, no matter how cool and “into” the song we tried to be, we just knew it. Look up on that drum break and four pairs of eyes would make instant contact.

 

We soon realised that this was ridiculous and would unconsciously try to break the chain. Yet, it was beyond our power to do so. For that short period of time, our brains, bodies and thoughts were so finely in tune with each other that we were almost a single entity.

  

Before the summer we hadn’t known each that well. Binks had been to college with Jags. I had become friendly with Tommo through a now lapsed friendship with a mutual gig goer. Jags was in one of the local bands that Tommo and I used to go and see at Kino. The venue was so small that it was impossible not to bump into people between the sets, Jags was funny and welcoming, delighted that we enjoyed the gentle and reflective work that the band produced.

 

After a gig at the start of June, Jags mentioned that the other two in the band were heading overseas the next day for a summer of inter-railing, so a quiet summer was on the cards. Tommo suggested going to a park in town the next night as there was going to be a free music event and a bar, the weather was meant to good. It may not be Paris, Rome or Berlin but we could try to have some fun right here. Binks overheard the suggestion and was obviously keen to go. Suddenly our summer was about to begin.

 

I guess it helped that the four of us were just as happy sitting in the garden of a café or pub reading as we were going into town to watch a band. As long as we were together things were good. Nobody held a dominant position, ideas presented themselves and apparently without effort or sometimes even discussion we just followed them, wherever they would take us.

 

Tommo was the only one who had a car and when we were in the car there was only one thing that we wanted to hear. A friend of Jags worked in a record shop and had managed to secure a promo cassette of a forthcoming single from Jonathan Richman called “That Summer Feeling”. We played the song on repeat, singing, finger clicking, clapping and wahwah wooing along with the backing vocals for all our worth.

 

The fact that nobody else knew the song was maybe part of the attraction. It was our song, the most important song in the world to us, yet only the four of us knew of the beauty that it contained.

 

When out and about we used the lyrics of the song as our own coded language. Sometimes to amuse, sometimes to deliberately confuse others that were with us.

 

“Hey Jags,” I would say. “See that lawn, what you gonna do on it?”

 

“Flop down on it!” would come the reply.

 

Our small gang would whoop with joy. A joy made somehow deeper by inevitable perplexed looks on the faces of other friends. We didn’t mean to be cruel or mean to the others, it was just that we were revelling in our collective unity.

 

The endless afternoons turned into endless days, weekends then weeks. Even though some of our time would be spent in work, magically those hours disappeared and quickly we were back together. Listening to music, drinking in the sunshine, having picnics in the park, laughing and learning with each other.

 

We were always in each other’s company. I had never known a time of so many smiles from such simple pleasures. It was a partnership of equals, nobody looking for or taking the upper hand. We hung out, danced and flirted with others, It was summer, we were young, it was what we had to do. Yet the four of us always came back to each other at the end of the day, laughing on the adventures that we had enjoyed.

  

One afternoon in August, I meet with Jags after finishing work early. I thought that Tommo and Binks were going to be there as well but there was no sign of them. Jags was vague about their absence and we just made our way on foot to sit, in the by now slightly oppressive summer heat, outside The Arnolfini.

 

We sat with a drink as Jags started to explain that Tommo and Binks had decided that they wouldn’t be joining us later. At first I didn’t understand what I was being told, thinking this was odd. What would they want to do that didn’t involve Jags and I? Jags asked me if had noticed how close the other two had become over the last week or so?I hadn’t. I still couldn’t understand what I was being told.

 

Jags then went onto to say that last night after I had been dropped of at home, Tommo and Binks had taken their friendship to the next level and things were suddenly a lot more complicated.

 

My head was thrown into confusion. Why would the two of them jeopardise the friendship that we four had shared by being so selfish. We weren’t that sort of group of friends; it was never about couples and the inevitable splits that came from that. We were different, four friends just happy in each other’s company, or so I thought.

 

And that was the end of that perfect summer and the shared closeness that came with it.

What Presence?

Nobody could understand what Rob was doing. He was almost eighteen, yet since the age of twelve he hadn’t posted anything. It wasn’t that he didn’t have access, he could post at anytime. They all knew that he observed items they posted, some even posted about him in the hope of provoking a reaction. Rob saw it all, they were sure of that. Yet he never responded, never instigated, he just observed. It was almost like he didn’t really exist. He had no presence.

What was considered odd as a young teenager was by now causing concern. His parents had lost count of the number of doctors, analysts, and therapists they had arranged for him to be seen by. In some cases they had even taken him to meet these experts in person, instead of the standard remote interactive assessment. They weren’t rich people, and by now Rob must have been aware of the extraordinary lengths, both physical and financial, they were going to, in an effort to help him.

Talk? Oh yes, he would quite happily talk. His parents loved the slightly old fashioned way he would he would ask them how their day had been and tell them about the things he had done whilst they had been apart. He had a small and slowly decreasing number of friends, who also liked his quirky ways.

His parents had laughed when he told them about his idea for a debating society at school. Apparently he had read about such an event taking place at Cambridge University in the time before “@FulCon”, when people would come together to discuss a topic of the day. He was completely fascinated with the idea of motions, arguments and counter arguments being put forward by people in the same room, with an audience, who were a genuine part of the event. People who listened as complex theories and feelings were discussed.

He told his parents that he loved the idea of a conversation that didn’t quickly end up in a series of insults or symbols being exchanged on a screen, be it virtual or real. He wanted everyone at the debate to be truly involved and focused on that one thing. His parents thought he was cute and that it was a quaint idea.

His parents explained that “@FulCon” had been invented to replace all that. With “@FulCon” everyone was fully connected all the time. It didn’t matter if you were in the next room or the next continent everybody could interact with anyone else via the global mirage network that “@FulCon” had developed and controlled.

He mentioned his worry, that the more voices there were in a conversation, the fewer were actually heard. He also wondered what happened to voices that fell foul of the behavioural protocol that “@FulCon” imposed. What happened to those who didn’t follow the carefully prescribed lines of thought and deed that the automatic moderation system demanded? Sure, there was an amount of dissent tolerated. In certain circumstances it was encouraged even although he couldn’t help feeling that this was to give the illusion of debate. Well he wanted something more real than that.

He had seen it happen many times when a figure such as Stephen Dry would engage in a dispute with someone like Toby Bung. The people of the globe would quickly fall behind their thought prompter of choice and ten minutes later the ritual abuse of the opposing parties would start. In a further ten minutes the topic would only be of interest to those with an interest in the rapidly homogenised world of global abuse. This was when the conversation, such as it was, would end.

The idea of a debate with real people present was confusing to his limited selection of friends. So much so, that one of them spoke to their Learning Instigator, Mr Brand about the curious suggestion. At first Mr Brand had joined in with the general hilarity about the backward looking nature of an event like this. He had though become intrigued by Robert Coles and his insistent refusal to follow the way the world operated.

He was convinced that this otherwise intelligent young man was throwing his life away. Maybe if this debate idea flopped it would finally prove to Robert that he needed to engage with the world as it was, rather than holding onto his fascination for the twentieth century. Mr Brand spoke to the Commercial Manager of the school to see if the abandoned assembly room could possibly be used for a debate.

The assembly room had been mothballed when, in line with other schools, they moved all meetings onto the “@FulCon” network. The government had covered the cost of providing “@FulCon” but were refusing to fund maintenance work on any room that held more than twenty people, so there was little point in persisting with this decaying relic of the past.

The classrooms had been adapted, housing a collection of learning pods where the students would take lessons from a central source; Teachers were reclassified as Learning Instigators and massively depleted in numbers. These days the ones that actually worked in a school were little more than glorified caretakers. Mr Brand was never the hardest working of men, so although the Learning Instigator role was poorly paid and with no social standing at all, it suited him until the time came when he would need to take a proper job.

It was agreed that the debate would take place on the first day back after the Christmas break, January 4th and Rob advised the school that the motion would be “This House thinks that “@FulCon” is not a force for good in our society.” Mr Brand told the Commercial Manager, who instantly wanted to cancel the event. Rob though had also told a bemused friend of the proposed event, his friend Chris did as everybody other than Rob would have done, he posted it on “@FulCon”.

As “@FulCon” was developed in America, it followed the American method for dating, inexplicably this still managed to cause confusion in some older people in Monarch Land (formally the United Kingdom until increasing parts of the Kingdom were lost to it), the date was mistakenly reversed and soon word spread of this very funny, upcoming April Fool event.

The people behind “@FulCon” were always keen to promote the wonderfully benign quality of their product. Their strap line was: “One system, one world, one shared understanding.” The thought went around their HQ that this would be great way to show that despite what small groups of people who misunderstood their company said, they weren’t so humourless that they didn’t get the joke. Obviously it must be a joke because to their minds “@FulCon” was a magnificent success for the shareholders and governments that had invested in their wonderfully unifying product.

When they looked up the “@FulCon” ID for Rob Coles they were confused to find that the data on his page had not been updated for six years, this was unheard of. They sent him messages but received no replies. Next they turned to the school.

The Commercial Manager of the school had half been expecting contact about the proposed debate, he wasn’t though expecting the insistence that the event must go ahead or their wish to allow Rob to publicise his views. A message was sent to Mr Brand, asking him to bring Rob into the office so that the people from “@FulCon” could talk to him and attempt to arrange an interview that could be posted.

Ten minutes later, Rob and Mr Brand were talking with a marketing person from “@FulCon” and Rob was firmly and persistently saying that he had no wish to be interviewed or post anything about the debate until the day of the event, which due to the confusion of the date format was almost four months away.

Over the forthcoming months Rob was true to his word, something that was often surprisingly difficult to achieve. “@FulCon” steadily ramped up the coverage of “The event the world won’t see.” Questioning the right of an indidual to deliberately withhold his idea’s, no matter how cranky they were, from an ever more curious world. Features were posted about the strange case of “The boy with no presence”. There were rumours that he was a Fascist or that he was part of a sinister cult. What did he have to hide? Why wouldn’t he ever post?

The school became increasing anxious about the event. They were inundated with requests for information or tickets for the debate. Nobody could have imagined how curious people were about physically being part of an event. A few months ago most people would have recoiled from the idea of spending any time in a room with a mass of people that they didn’t already know. Yet, somehow Rob had stirred a latent desire in people and by the day of the event the assembly room could have been filled several hundred times over.

Obviously Rob was to speak in favour of the motion but who would present the counter argument? Initially it was going to be another pupil at the school. However as interest in the event grew, other names were put forward. On the morning of April 1st Rob found out that he would be debating with Mr Shant Grapps, the global marketing manager for “@FulCon”. Apparently he had been flown in from the company HQ in Austin, Texas the week before and had been posting false stories during that time, so that nobody outside the company  and his family knew how seriously they were taking it.

On the afternoon of the debate there was briefly some talk of the whole thing being cancelled on safety grounds. There were worries that a huge crowd of people would try to force their way into the event. As people no longer gathered in large groups, crowd control was now such an alien concept to the security forces that they had no idea how they would deal with any potential invasion. By this time though “@FulCon” could not afford to back down so it was decided that the event would have to go ahead. Several high level posts were aired which lambasted Rob for his irresponsible approach to the safety of others. What made this person think he was so important that others people’s safety should be put at risk? He was a brat, a holigan, and an intelectual terorist. Rob quietly went about his day ingoring the ever-growing frenzy.

Then a strange thing happened. People started to post that as they could not use their visulisers to watch the debate, they should have their own versions of the event. People started to encourage each other to meet and discuss the question themselves. Word started to go out that people should all go their nearest school at 7pm. If they couldn’t get into the school they should meet outside and hold a debate there. Post after post appeared with the title “7pm School Debate”. The “@FulCon” moderation system either had to delete thousands and thousands of posts or let them run. Quick decisions had to be made.

At around 5:30pm Rob answered a call from his mum, he thought that she was a little early, they didn’t need to leave for another thirty minutes or so. She didn’t say anything when he came downstairs, just pointed at the large floating screen in the lounge. Rob took a while to take in the posts. Then the reality dawned on him. People weren’t going to listen to him talking, they were going to talk for themselves to each other, in the flesh. Maybe he would have to change the thrust of his debate, perhaps “@FulCon” could be a force for good after all, it was just that people needed to manage it, not be managed by it. As he made his way to the school, people were on the move wherever he looked. It was just before 7pm and nobody was feeling like an April Fool any more.

The Christmas Dilemma

When he was working in the lab, Dave knew how important it was to be factual and accurate in all that he did. In some jobs you can fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you really are. In the lab though it was different, any attempt at bluffing or covering the cracks as he worked his way through a process would quickly backfire.  That was why he found Christmas such a difficult time of year.

 

All around him people were busy building up a fantasy world for their children and worse still, his children. It wasn’t easy being the odd one out; in fact it was getting harder. When the twins were younger they didn’t really care where the presents came from, didn’t understand what the sudden surge of shiny new things to play with was all about. They accepted whatever was pushed in their direction. Now though, questions were starting to be asked about the man in the big red suit.

 

Last year Suzy had been able to distract the kids whenever the subject cropped up. Well that was what Dave saw anyway, but when he wasn’t around? How had the chats gone then? He knew that Suzy thought that his rigid approach to always telling the children the truth was daft.

 

“Sometimes, when your not in the lab,” she said. “You have to bend the formulas a little to make them work.”

 

He couldn’t see it though. Parenting scared him: there were two many choices, too many options when it came to moulding a life. The only thing that he could do was be completely honest with them at all times, about everything.  Magic, rumour and mysticism wasn’t for him or his kids.

 

It was December 23rd and he was having the most pointless row he had ever had. Suzy wanted the kids to put out some treats for Santa and the reindeers on the night of Christmas Eve.  Something in him just wouldn’t let it go, “no” was all that he could say.  He loved Suzy and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t support him on this. All she would talk about was the kids being deprived of the magic that all their friends would be enjoying. She just didn’t get it. 

 

That night was a frosty one in more ways than one and, as he scrapped the ice from the car the next morning, Dave was decidedly lacking in Christmas spirit.  It was a typical Christmas Eve working day, nobody really doing any work, just idly filling time until someone from the management team had the courage to send people home. Well that time arrived just after noon, as the grey sky started to fill with white flecks. As the “Happy Christmas” farewells echoed around the lab, he grabbed his coat and bottle of screw top wine that was his Secret Santa gift and headed for his car, still unsure of what sort of welcome he would get.

 

On his drive home he decided to stop off to buy another gift for Suzy. Although convinced that his logical clear-headed approach was correct, he had come to realise that this was driving a wedge between the two of them. A wedge that was unnecessary and it was up to him to make the first move. 

 

He went to a small jeweller that he knew Suzy loved and after some help from the shop assistant; he selected a necklace that he was sure she would adore. The assistant kindly gift wrapped it for him, he hopped that Suzy would see that this was a signal that he really loved her and that their love deserved a fresh start.  He made his way back to the car, the snow was really starting to take hold and the pavement was a little tricky in places. Just as he was about to reach the car, he heard a groan from behind him, then instantly he was barged in the back and found himself knocked to the floor.

 

Turning his head, he saw a large elderly gentleman; the redness of the old mans face was highlighted by the whiteness of his beard and the snow that nestled around his prone body.  Though winded, Dave was not in any pain, so he raised himself from the ground to see if the old man was ok.  The man was full of apologies as Dave gently helped him to his feet.

 

“So sorry,” the man said. “That will teach me for trying to rush.  You know how it is everything has to be done by this evening and I suppose I was just trying to move too quickly for these ancient legs of mine.”

 

Dave remembered that he had the wine in his car and asked the man if he would like a drink to settle his nerves? The man smiled, a lovely kindly smile and said that he would be very grateful.  So they made their way to car and then spent a few minutes sitting in the vehicle, whilst the old man sipped the wine from cup of the travel flask that Dave had in the car. There were also a few mince pies that Dave had taken from work, so he offered his new friend one of those, which was gleefully eaten. Whilst they were talking, Dave introduced himself and started chatting about his difficulty with the family and the “magic” of Christmas. The man listened patiently, whilst helping himself to another cup of wine.

 

Eventually Dave asked the man if could offer him a lift anywhere?

 

“No. No, I’ll be ok. I’m meeting some of my helpers just around the corner. You’ve been very kind, especially as it was me that bumped into you.”

 

Dave helped the man from the car.

 

“Happy Christmas, young man, I’m sure that you and your family will enjoy this Christmas!” The gentleman exclaimed as he made his way around the corner from Dave and his car.

 

Dave tried to tell Suzy about his minor adventure when he got home but she wasn’t really interested in anything that he had to say. The children were excitedly running around the house and he couldn’t wait for them to go to bed, so that he could say sorry to Suzy for being such a grump. He would give her the necklace then, hopefully that would enable them to start the next day in a better frame of mind.

 

He was though, still unsure about putting out the snacks for Santa.  Suzy mentioned it and without meaning to do so, all his old thoughts came flooding back into his head and he started to say that he didn’t think it was the right lesson for the children.  Then, when they were still debating, Suzy suddenly started putting some mince pies on a plate, along with a glass of milk. She called out to the kids.

 

“Come and see the snacks that we are going to leave for Santa.”

 

The children ran excitedly into the room. Dave was furious as the children carried the plates into the front room. He could see the pleasure on their faces, normally this would make him happy as well but when the joy was based on a lie, well it just made him feel like a fraud.

 

Soon enough the kids went to bed and Suzy and him edged around each for the rest of the night. There seemed little point in giving her the necklace now, the moment had gone. Yet again his stubbornness had caused a rift between them. In virtual silence they brought the children’s presents down to put around the tree.  Eventually Suzy went to bed, leaving him to stare at the plate and glass that had been left alongside the Christmas tree.

 

He decided that he would just leave the necklace by the tree; Suzy would find it there in the morning.  He went to the hall to retrieve the small box from the pocket of his overcoat, yet when he checked the pockets, they were empty.  Maybe it had fallen out in the collision with the old man? Or maybe the whole collision had just been an elaborate set-up for the seemingly jovial fellow to steel the gift from him? What a fool he had been to take the man at face value, worse still he even given him a drink and some food. The spirit of Christmas eh! Well what a sucker he was. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that the man had taken him for a fool.

 

He turned the lights off and made his way upstairs. Suzy was already asleep, so he slipped quietly into the bed, hoping that somehow they could make a fresh start in the morning. 

 

Of course with young children in the house, the morning came very early on Christmas Day.  Just after six, the kids were knocking on the bedroom door and asking if they could come in.  Suzy told them they could and the door burst open.  Both the kids were already in full flow.

 

“He came in the night!”

 

“Father Christmas left us presents, can we open them?”

 

“Just wait a moment. We can all go down together,” Suzy said to the kids. “Did you eat the pies and drink the milk? She silently mouthed to him, with her back to the children.

 

Dave had forgotten that he was supposed to drink the milk and eat the pies, apart from a few crumbs. His head slumped back onto the pillow; Suzy turned away and left the room without a word.

 

From downstairs he could hear the kids.

 

“Come on Dad, come and see what Father Christmas has left us.”

 

“Coming.” He shouted back and he worriedly made his way to the stairs.

 

As he entered the living room, he was just getting ready to explain to the children that Santa must have been in too much of a hurry to take the nibbles they had left him when Suzy came up to him and gave him a lovely kiss on the cheek.

 

“Look Dad, Santa left us a note.” He heard someone say. At almost the same moment he heard Suzy say, “Oh what’s this little box, with my name on it?”

 

One of the children was pointing at the plate, which apart from a few crumbs was empty and the clear glass was drained of all its milk.

 

“Can I open this?” said Suzy. She held aloft the gift-wrapped box that he had last seen in the jewellers on Christmas Eve.

 

He was very confused now but luckily Suzy and the kids were too focused on their gifts to notice.  He came to Suzy’s side just as she opened the box. 

 

“Oh, I love it,” she cried out. “Thank you darling”, then she whispered “thank you for dealing with the Santa snacks and leaving that note as well. It means so much to the kids, I know it wasn’t easy for you!”

 

He looked from her to the empty plate, then the empty glass, finally to the slightly crumpled note in his hand.

 

“Dear Dave, Suzy, Gerry and Tom. Thank you so much for looking after me on Christmas Eve when I was dashing around. I really appreciate the food and drink; it’s helps to keep me going. As you know I have a lot of houses to visit. I hope you enjoy the presents and never forget the magic of Christmas. Santa.”

The Silver Club

Jean really wasn’t sure about going but Peggy just wouldn’t stop.

“Come on Jean, you’ve turned into a right old misery lately. The bus stops right outside the door, Ted and Hilda will be there. Come on love, you need to get out of this house of yours once in a while.”

Eventually Jean gave in, when Peggy was in this mood there was no arguing with her. Although the weather was warm, she made sure she had her nice new coat from BHS, well you never know if the bus will turn up, then you just need a cloud to come along and before you know it the cold is in your bones and these days it takes so long to get warm again.

Peggy had decided that they were going to a morning showing at their local cinema. They had started a weekly event called “The Silver Club” only £3.50 to get in with a free hot drink and biscuits. It’s more about silver hair than silver screen thought Jean. Hilda had told Peggy about it a couple of weeks ago and ever since then Peggy had been on at Jean constantly.

“You used to love going to the cinema, Jean,” Peggy said. “I never knew anyone who went as much as you. Most of us just went when we were courting, a cheap place to go and snuggle up with someone nice. You two though, you kept on going even after you had the children.  The rest of us grew out it, not you and Frank though, every week you were there. Still can’t work out how you managed it or why you won’t go now come to think of it. You’re a strange one, I’ll give you that.”

Well that was it really, the cinema was where she went with Frank, going without him, well it just didn’t feel right.  She always loved the way the house lights dimmed and then the curtain on the screen glided away. For the next couple of hours reality left them and hand in hand with Frank they set off around the globe and beyond. They laughed and cried together, they were the best of travel partners, communicating feelings and thoughts with a subtle movement of their fingers before suddenly and always too quickly the credits would roll, house lights come up and they would head slowly back home, thrilled with each other’s company.

Jean’s head was awash with memories during the bus journey. More than once Peggy had snapped at her for not following the conversation properly.

As they stood to leave the bus it was clear that they weren’t the only people taking advantage of free bus travel and cut price cinema. A well dressed, silver haired army, edged tentatively from the bus to the cinema. There were several faces that she recognised, a few people even came to say hello, saying how sorry they were to hear about Frank and asking how she was.  She never knew how to answer that one, it was one of the reasons that she had stopped going out.  How could she say to those kindly faces that she was desperately lonely, that she just about made it through each long and terrible day before the night came and somehow that was even worse? Then the cycle would repeat again the next day.

Peggy bustled her forwards and into the foyer of the cinema.

“There’s Hilda and Ted,” she said. “You go and chat to them I’ll get the tickets. With a nudge from Peggy, Jean found herself heading towards Hilda who unexpectedly grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into an exuberant embrace.

“Oh Jean, we have missed you,” Hilda said. “So glad that you have come along today. ”

Well the film was nice, several times she felt her fingers twitch at a scene that Frank would have enjoyed. Obviously though, there was no response to the frail movement of her hand but the film was good enough to pull her back into this other world. Her gloom was lifted, she even laughed. Small, hesitant laughs they may have been but it was the first time that she had been able to do that since Frank had gone.

They went again the next week and the one after that. By the third week she found that she was really looking forward to going. Denzel Washington was the star of the film they were seeing that week, she loved his composed, steely grace. His was a favourite of Franks as well. One of the last films they had seen together had featured Denzel Washington and she remembered the daft conversation they had about what it would be like if he came to their place for tea one day.  It was one of those “what celebrities would you invite to diner” type chats. They had both agreed that a full evening meal would be a bit too much for them now. Afternoon tea with Denzel though, they both figured, that would a wonderful thing. The film was lovely and so was Denzel, how Frank would have enjoyed that, she thought when sat at home with a cup of tea later that day.

By now their group of film fans had expanded, it was not uncommon for Jean to find herself in a group upwards of ten people. Some were old friends, some she was meeting for the first time. There were so many people to catch up with so they had started heading to the pub across the road for some lunch and a drink after the film had finished. Jean found herself enjoying this experience. Frank had never really been a man who enjoyed pubs, never much of a drinker and certainly not a smoker he was never fully relaxed in that environment.  Of course nowadays the pubs were smoke free and Jean had the freedom to chat with the others in a relaxed atmosphere.

Though she was grateful to Peggy for introducing her to this new world, she also enjoyed getting away from her for a while and talking to some of the others. She actually found that she could relax and chat to a few of the single men in the group. Derrick, Jim and Bill were good company; Bill had something of Denzel Washington about him she thought. Elegant and courteous he was always charming and caring around her.

It was only when she got home one afternoon that she realised what a revelation this was.  She had to face facts, Frank was gone, she still loved him very much but she was still here and who knows, she could be for some while. “Try not to act old or be lonely” Frank used to say. Well what would he think of her now she wondered.

One week Peggy called to say that she would not be able to make it to the Silver Club, she had been feeling ill for a few days and her doctor had told her to stay at home. Jean was determined to go and when she stepped down from the bus she was delighted to see her group of friends were there waiting for her. One of these was the always immaculately dressed Bill and it was he who stepped forward to say hello and ask after Peggy’s whereabouts.  During the film several people had to suppress mobile phones that they had forgotten to switch off, this was not an uncommon situation so Jean, who didn’t own a mobile didn’t think much of it.  On leaving the cinema though it was clear that something was wrong when Hilda suddenly let out a large cry, before turning to Ted and saying.

“It’s Peggy, she’s gone!”

The funeral took place two weeks later, there was a good turn out which pleased Jean. As luck would have it many of them met up again the next morning for the Silver Club. There was an understandably sombre mood amongst the friends as they took their seats in the cinema. The film was a sentimental wartime story, which held no surprises for Jean.  The events of the last few weeks must have been playing on her mind though as she did find herself unexpectedly moved when the young wife opened the letter, the one that every war bride dreaded. Jean’s hand flinched and she gulped back a tear, Bill was sitting next to her and suddenly their hands were intwined.  It was a long time since she had held a mans hand so firmly and for so long. Frank wouldn’t mind though, she was sure of that.

Breakfast in Ireland

In the grey light of the morning it’s clear that The Green Lodge in Carlow has seen better days; most of the furniture is showing it’s age and the main window looking out towards the car park in front of the Hotel has a large crack running from top to bottom. The pattern of the raindrops falling down the window is violently skewed as it hits the fault line. Looking around the room I notice a bookshelf and wander over to take a look. It’s full of travel books and guides to the delights of the local area, picture after picture of hills and fields. Why do people want to go and look at countryside? I swear that I’ll never understand the attraction of a muddy field and some old tree’s. If I do change my mind though, this is obviously the place to come. The smell of frying bacon starts to drift past me, time to have a look in the dining room.

I push open the door and find a fairly dispiriting looking room, lot’s of basic looking square metal legged tables with place settings for four people and a centre piece of plastic flowers. None of the chairs appear to match, some of them are comically low, out of curiosity I stiffly edge down onto one these chairs and the find the table is roughly at chin height for me, of course at that very moment the door from the kitchen swings open and a middle aged woman comes quickly into the room.

“Good morning to you, coffee or tea?” She asks as a large grin spreads across her face.

“Oh, um, coffee please,” I say trying to rise from the chair with some degree of grace.

“I think that one’s a little on the small side for you, but I expect you worked that out for yourself there.”

“Yes, it is a little low down, I’ll, um, move, sorry.”

“Any of the others coming down?”

“Not that I know of, it sounded pretty quiet when I got up.”

“I expect they’ll be down soon, in my experience few things move young men like the smell of a cooked breakfast. I’d guess that you’ll be having some company soon.”

With that, she turns quickly on her heels and moves back to the kitchen.

The room is sparsely decorated, the only visual point of interest is a wide picture of what I think is the Forth Bridge, which is actually cut in two and displayed in a couple of adjoining frames of differing sizes. I get up from my seat to take a close look, on closer inspection it looks as though it’s not even a proper poster, it probably was taken from a broadsheet newspaper or a magazine and in places it has faded so much as to be hardly visible. I wonder what prompted someone to pluck this picture and decide that it had to be mounted so quickly that they couldn’t possibly wait until they had a frame that was the right size for the picture. No, it had to go up straight away, if that means cutting it into oddly sized segments, so be it.

Now settled in a chair that matches my build a little better, I have a clear view out to the fields behind the hotel and a very drab view it is. The fields are messy, muddy and are occasionally dotted with buildings and what I assume must be farm equipment all of which are in dilapidated state. I can never understand why older people go on about the wonders of the countryside; in my experience it’s the dullest, dirtiest most miserable place to spend anytime. If you do venture into it, the chances are that you will come home with some sort of animal crap on you after traipsing around for hours with nothing to see and no-one to talk to. It’s a place where stagnation and decay rule, I’ll take the allegedly dirty, smelly, dangerous town over the country every time.

Suddenly the door of the dinning room swings open and in walks an elderly man, vigorously shaking the rain off a small bright pink umbrella. When the umbrella drops down I can see that he is wearing a rather natty ensemble of a Manchester United bobble hat, a paisley scarf, a heavy looking brown checked dressing gown, red tracksuit trousers and a pair of working mans boots which appeared to be covered with the sort of detritus which I had just been thinking about.

“Morningyoungmanwherearemyslipperswhathasshedonewithmyslippers? Theyshouldbebythedoordon’ttellmei’mnotwelcomejustbecauseafewbritshavecomeoverforakickabout”

“Sorry?” I say, unable to keep pace with his rapid-fire delivery.

“Myslipperstheyshouldbebythedoor CLAIRE, CLAIREWHEREAREMYSLIPPERS?” He shouts toward the kitchen.

Claire comes into the room with a mug of coffee in her hand.

“Finbar McCafferty, don’t you be shouting at me like that! Look at the state of you; I thought we agreed that you were going to get dressed properly before coming in for breakfast today. I don’t want you intimidating my guests,” she turns to me. “I’m so sorry

Mr. McCafferty lives next door and we have an arrangement regarding breakfast with him, I hope you don’t mind?”

“No, no, that’s fine,” I say, taking the mug from her outstretched hand.

“Whathaveyoudonewiththem?Ican’thavebreakfastinmybootsIneedmyslipperswoman.”

“Sit down and take those filthy boots off, I put your slippers in the kitchen, give me a moment.”

Mr. McCafferty, looks around the virtually empty dining room before fixing me with a steely glare “Hmph,” he sighs before casting his eyes around the place again. Once again his visual journey around the room ends with him looking in my direction and sighing heavily.

“Oh,” I say. “Is this where you normally sit? Sorry, I’ll move.”

I start to get up from the chair, but he quickly strides towards me.

“Nonostaythereyoungfellow.SitsitI’llgonexttoyou.”

He pulls out the chair and sits down with a heavy thud.

“Pullthatoffformewillyou.”

The boot on his right foot has been lifted a couple of inches from the floor and is proffered in my direction. At some stage, I’m sure that it must have emerged, bright and shinny from a firm box, maybe with some paper carefully wrapped around it to stop it from being blemished by it’s brother or maybe sister boot. A comforting leathery smell would have gently enveloped the nostrils of the new guardian of the footwear and the beautiful relationship between man and his footwear was about to begin. Few relationships are closer than that of a man and the item that he chooses to place upon the sole of his feet.

Although women profess to love their shoes, the fickle way that they switch from pair to pair shows that the relationship is transitory, some would even say capricious. Of course they love to show off their new acquisition to friends and for a while everything is wonderful. Then one day a purchase is made, the new member of the entourage is higher, flatter, brighter, softer, firmer or whatever but it is different and suddenly more exciting that the previous model. Soon the original is featuring rather less often in footwear rota, then it’s moved from the bedroom floor to the wardrobe and it’s seldom seen again, cast to the back of the wardrobe it emerges only on those occasional tidy up days when the flame of affection is briefly rekindled without ever really catching alight with the same level intensity of those first few exciting weeks.

A man however will stick with his shoe until the poor thing has given everything for it’s master, it’s a relationship where the two parties stick together through thick and thin, literally in this case. People often say that the relationship between a man and his dog is so close that the two parties end up mirroring each other’s characteristics, though I must admit that I’m not aware of many men who have taken to cocking their leg whilst relieving themselves. The well fitting, well-worn man’s shoe, will over time reveal to the world, the true nature of the foot snugly hidden within it. The lines and contours gradually emerge to cover the previously smooth surface the shoe, creasing it in a way that mere hands could never mange to do. Eventually when the shoe has given everything for you, it is put out of its misery and thrown away, often in several parts as the sole and uppers become evermore distant friends, the increasing intrusion of water into the area reserved for socks only whenever puddles litter the pavements, mean it has to go.

The shoe is caked with all manner of unpleasantness and is being waved with ever more urgency in my direction.

“COMEON, offwithitnow, offwithit,” he demands.

Cautiously I lean forward, I notice that the laces are undone and are hanging limply down from the eyelets, at least I don’t need to worry about struggling with a difficult knot. I ease my fingers into the uppers and try to make the opening as wide as possible, in the hope that the boot will slip off without too much actual pulling on my part. Sadly there is little room for manoeuvre; I know that at some point I shall have to take hold of that filthy heel and pull. I look back to the table in the hope that there might be a napkin that I can use to provide some sort of protective layer but sadly for me it looks as though finger wiping is not a priority in these parts.

Mr. McCafferty appears to have picked up on my discomfort and train of thought.

“AH, holdonnowholdon, usethis,” he rattles off as he reaches into the pocket of his dressing gown to pull out a large and obviously very well used handkerchief along with various sweet wrappers and a couple of those stubby pens that you can only find in bookmakers.

“Thereyougoyoungfella,” he says.

“Thanks”, I mumble, appreciating his offer of help but distressed that I now have to take hold of another disgusting item to help Mr. McCafferty prepare for his breakfast.

The handkerchief is not only, obviously damp but also distressingly lumpy and in certain parts, green. It’s clear that Mr. McCafferty has used this item for most of his adult life without seeing the need to expose it to any sort of hot water and soap combination and now, generous soul that he is, he’s offering it to me.

I desperately scan the fetid piece of cloth for some dry areas, which I may be able to hold without too much fear of contamination. I find that two diagonally opposing corners are dry and rough to the touch, so gingerly taking those between my thumbs and forefingers I then try to wrap it around the heel of Mr. McCafferty’s right boot in order to pull at the hard plastic base of his footwear.

Mr. McCafferty makes no effort to pull his foot in the opposite direction of my efforts, in fact if anything he appears to just letting his leg drift around in whichever direction I am pulling it.

“Try to pull your foot out,” I say as he starts to slide off his chair and towards me. I pull again and the handkerchief slips against the surface of the boot, falls from my feeble grasp, leaving my now naked fingers holding the slimy boot in my hands.

“Oh Christ!” I yell.

“Comeonladstopmakingsuchasongdanceaboutthiswillyou. Justgetmybootoff.”

What the hell, my hands are covered with sixty years of snot and phlegm along with a sizeable amount of mud and God knows what else, I may as well just bend down, grab it fully and finish it off. So I do this.

The force of my thrust takes Mr. McCafferty by surprise, so as well as the boot departing rapidly from it’s job of enclosing his foot and flying through my slippery grip, he himself zooms forward, his foot going upward at great speed before it is stopped by the weight of my chin. Causing me to bite my lip as my glasses fly across the room. He lands with a thud on the floor, pulling the table and a shower of crockery and cutlery onto him and me as he goes.

There is a second of two of stunned silence before the door to the kitchen is thrown open.

“Mr. McCafferty that’s it!” Shouts Claire. “I asked you not to cause me a problem with these boys and here you are fighting with them in my breakfast room. Who do you think you are?”

“He wasn’t fighting,” I offer. We were just trying to get his boot off and ….well, um things went a bit wrong.”

“I’ll say they did,” she replies. Come away from there now, let me clear that mess up.”

Mr. McCafferty has now picked himself up from the floor and much to my amazement has without any apparent commotion removed his other boot.

“Did you find those slippers?” he meekly asks.

A Dance in Time

As soon as Stuart left the road and drove onto the land, he knew that this was going to be a tough weekend. The rear of the transporter had swung violently to the left, narrowly avoiding an elderly man in a bright red poncho.



Although the festival wasn’t due to start until tomorrow, there were already quite a lot of people milling around. Most of them appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties but that would all change when the gates officially opened. He couldn’t really understand why people went to these events, when it was so easy to watch a multiscreen gathering, complete with real time fan interactions from the comfort of your own home. Why would you want to spend time in a muddy field, clashing wheelpods with people you didn’t know? Of course not everyone was going to have a wheelpod some would have walking frames or sticks, there was even a rumour that some people were actually going to be wheeled around whilst lying in a bed. It was all too much for him to understand. Still the money he got for working this weekend would help him get that new odour enhancer for his ProPad.



He had spoken at length with his dad about the idea of festivals before he signed up for the work. Although his dad said that he was too young to really know what the attraction was either. He did recall a couple of his friend’s going to them.



”They were huge events apparently,” he said. “Of course these days the state would never allow 200,000 people to gather in one place. I guess people were more naive and didn’t realise what freedom they had.”



”But I still don’t get why they wanted to do it in the first place,” he said to his dad. “Surely it was just chaos when it came to eating and sleeping. And could you actually see or hear the musicians in that size crowd!”



”Well they ended up with huge screens for you to watch things on. Initially these were alongside the stage, eventually someone realised that the screens could go anywhere on the site.” Said his Dad.



”So you could watch it with less people around you?” He said.



”Apparently son. It went from several screens around the site to individual screens for each tent. At some point the people just realised that they may as well just watch it from home and save all the hassle.”



”Thank god for that.” He replied.



Some folk though refused to let go of the idea of genuine public interaction. Admittedly most of these people were now in their seventies, eighties or even older. Somehow they had started a resurgence in the idea of the festival as something you would attend, rather than just watch. The numbers were nothing like they were back in the heyday of the festival. The Forever Young Festival that Stuart would be working at was hoping to attract five hundred people. Most of the attendees would need the sort of additional help that someone like Stuart would provide plus all the other staff and musicians, so there were going to be around a thousand people within the site.


This troubled Stuart. He couldn’t recall the last time he had seen more than ten people in the flesh at the same time. Webucation took care of all his learning needs, competitive sport was all done via the GamesMaster tool and since the demise of the shopping that his parents talked about, well you just never found yourself in a crowd. He docked his transporter and walked towards the “Staff Office” that the man on the gate had pointed out.



The lady behind the desk greeted him with a smile and then asked for his personal documentation code and name, which he provided.



”Thank you Stuart,” she said. “We are delighted that you are here to help us this weekend. Have you ever been to an event like this before?”



He confirmed that he hadn’t and that he didn’t really know what to expect. She informed him that he was the personal helper for Mr Steve Jackson. Mr. Jackson was eighty-four years old and this was his third festival in recent years, he had been a regular festival goer in his thirties. He would be arriving tomorrow, Stuart would have to meet him at the main gate and ensure that he could enjoy the full range of the festival for the next two days.

She gave him a map of the festival site, told him that there would be a briefing at 9am tomorrow and pointed him in the direction of the bed for the night saying.

“Chris will show you to the staff cabin and talk you through your duties in more detail. If you have any further questions just ask him or come back here. You’ll love it Stuart, please don’t look so worried.”



Over the next fifteen minutes or so, Chris was able to take some of the worry away. He explained that most of the people attending the festival would be so happy to be here, reliving their youth, that it would be the easiest weekend of his life. Stuart was just starting to believe Chris when they reached what looked like a large garage.



“This is your bedroom for the next few nights,” Chris said. “Just go and grab a bunk.” He then handed him a communicator to wear on his wrist. “This gets you access around the site and will be your prompt for when Mr Jackson needs you. It’s been pre-programmed with alarms for the different things that he wants to see. You can override it if he changes his mind about anything. Have fun.”



The bunks were three beds high; with a ladder enabling you to reach the upper levels. The ones nearest the door already looked full, so he walked through the enormous room until he found one that was unoccupied.



“Hey back here mate. There are bunks free on this one.” Shouted a middle-aged man. “We have to fill up, before we move onto the bunks, otherwise the latecomers will be wandering around in the middle of the night trying to find a spare.”



“Yeah, sorry,” Stuart said, and made his way towards the ladder. He noticed that the guy in the bottom bunk was considerably younger than he was and looked just as scared as Stuart was feeling.



“Hi,” Stuart said.



“Hi,” said the young man.



At the end of the bunk was a large box with a finger print controlled lock on it. He put his bag in the box and sat on the edge looking down. The gap between the beds looked like it was around six feet, so there was plenty of room to sit upright. There was an individual light and a curtain that you could pull across if you wished. As soon as he spotted that, he edged back on to the bed and pulled the curtain quickly across. Almost immediately he could feel the bed shaking as another person made their way up the ladder to the bed above him.



He leaned back on the bed, removed his boots and switched the light off. He heard mumbled conversations all around him for a while.



Morning came with a jolt and a shake. At first he couldn’t work out what was happening, then realised that the person above him must be using the ladder. He gently drew back the curtain that was protecting him from the weekend and saw that a few people were moving around. He checked his watch; it was just after seven thirty.



He decided that he may as well face this day head on, quickly slipped his boots on and eased his way down the ladder. There were people everywhere, in the next ten minutes he guessed that he saw more people in the flesh than he had in the last ten years. Yet, he was pleased to find that this hadn’t made him anxious. His dad had told him to enjoy the difference, not to be afraid of it. Like him, all the staff would have been through a rigorous checking process, so he shouldn’t encounter any of the dreaded Unlogged who lived on the fringe of society.

Although most of the people that were walking around were men, there were some women on the site as well. This both delighted and unnerved him in equal measures. Direct contact with members of the opposite sex was a rare event in his life. Of course he had some family members that were female but the prospect of sitting next to a girl of his own age, who hadn’t been carefully checked out by his parents via the social compatibility grader was virtually non-existent. Yet having picked up a breakfast pack, this was exactly what he was about to do.

He made his way to a bench and table, sat down and pressed the toast facility on the pack. Then whilst pressing the heat button on the coffee mug, he nervously looked at the light haired girl to his left. She caught his eye and immediately started talking.

“Don’t get too excited about the coffee,” she said. “It’s dire.”

“Shame.” He replied.

“Rumour has it though,” she continued. “That there are some real beans waiting to be ground for the punters. Hope to get myself a piece of that action. I’m Sarah by the way, from the startled look on your face I guess this is your first festival?”

“Is it that obvious,” he said. “I was hoping to bluff it but you’re right. I’m Stuart.”

For the next hour or so, Sarah talked Stuart through her experience at a couple of recent festivals, as they walked around the site. There were two main outdoor stages, a variety of food and drink outlets and more toilets than he thought he would ever see. Just before nine, they went in for the staff briefing. As luck would have it he saw both Chris, his guide from last night and the guy from the bunk below him. Along with Sarah’s company this helped to relax him. Stuart thought the instructions were pretty straight forward, his job was just to ensure that Mr Jackson had a great time. He didn’t have to be with him all the time, just make sure that Mr Jackson saw, heard, ate and drank whatever he wanted to. 

Within an hour the fans had started to arrive. Stuart’s Communicator flashed him a message, Mr Jackson was fifteen minutes away from the site, he should make his way to the entrance so that he could greet him. The notifications came regularly as Mr Jackson came closer. It also provided Stuart with a picture of him so that as soon as the transporter arrived, he could go and introduce himself.

Much to Stuart’s relief Mr Jackson was a friendly and relaxed man.

“Have you been to one of these things before?” He asked Stuart. Then when he got the expected answer, he tried to put Stuart at ease. “No problem, Stuart. I’m a very old hand at all this, and most of the time I can look after myself. I may need an occasional hand with food but with my buggy I’ll be able to get around the site very easily.”

He was as good as his word and with the help of the communicator keeping him informed of Mr Jackson’s needs, Stuart found that he had a large amount of free time. He spent most of the time walking around and standing up, his legs had never been so well used. He was pleased that he managed to bump into Sarah a couple of times as well but everyone here was so friendly, he was starting to understand why these old folks were so keen to have their outdated festival. Some of the music was ok as well. He felt quite sorry for the musicians having to play everything by hand, he always thought that it just came from the press of a button. These people though were really working and he could see how that physical work had an impact on the people that were watching them. Several times he saw Mr Jackson punching the air and vigorously clapping at the end of songs. This sort of behaviour pleased the musicians and the two parties thrived on each other’s participation. It was, he had to admit, strangely affecting.

That evening the music finished at eleven thirty. He saw Mr Jackson back to the chalet that he was booked into. Mr Jackson thanked him for his help during the day, then as Stuart was leaving he said.

“You should try to catch up with that girl with the blonde hair, I think she has a soft spot for you.” Was it that obvious that he had been trying to catch her attention? He was though exhausted, shocked at how much all that walking and standing had taken out of him. He decided to head back to the bunk and sleep, rather than try to track Sarah down, physical tiredness was a new experience for him. It felt odd but strangely satisfying.

The next day was, if anything even more fun. He loved the way people at the festival acted spontaneously. Mr Jackson for instance, completely changed his selections for the bands that he wanted to watch in the mid afternoon. It meant that they had to make a ten minute detour across the site and only arrived in time for the last three songs by the band, yet the joy on the face of Mr Jackson when the band waved goodbye was wonderful to see. Before the band left he saw Sarah laughing and dancing with the lady that she was guiding, then Sarah dashed over to him and they danced. Well at least he thought they did, he had never danced with anyone before. He had watched plenty of films of people dancing but he hadn’t realised what it would feel like when Sarah placed her arms around him and rocked him to the music. She moved, he moved. He had no idea what was happening and that was wonderful. All around people were grinning and laughing. These oldies were onto something, he thought. At the end of the evening he saw Mr Jackson back to the collection area, making sure that he had all his luggage with him.

“Thank you Stuart,” he said. “I enjoyed your company and hope that I wasn’t too tedious for a young chap like you.

“No, thank you,” Stuart said. “It’s been a fascinating weekend, made me look at life in new way to be honest. I love the way you and the other fans just chat to each other and look out for each other. It’s been lovely meeting you.”

Back at his bunk, he felt confident enough about his surroundings to leave the curtains open. He relaxed on the bed, rubbing his aching feet. Although he had only been away a couple of days, he knew that he would miss this place when he went back to normal life tomorrow. The bed started to shake a little, he realised that his, as yet unseen, upstairs neighbour must be making their way home. He saw the blonde mop of hair first, quickly followed by Sarah’s face.

“Well, what are the chances of that?” She said. “How was your day?”

He was actually lost for words for a couple of seconds. His day had been wonderful. His weekend even more so, and these all too brief conversations with Sarah had been unlike anything he’d experienced. And then his dance with Sarah raced through his mind again. He needed more experiences like this and he wanted to have them with Sarah.

“It’s been amazing,” he finally said. “You danced with me.”

From Green to Yellow

After spending the last few years in Southern Europe, it was the colour that first struck him when he returned to England. The ground around his small house in the countryside outside Valencia varied between a dusty grey to a bleached out pale yellow. As the train flashed through the countryside towards his childhood home, the deep, lush green of the countryside sweeping past him assailed his senses. When he had lived here he hadn’t ever noticed how rich and wonderful the landscape looked, field after field covered in wonderful carpets of green. Today it looked so fresh and welcoming, hell if the train stopped unexpectedly alongside one of these fields, rather than in a station, he could easily imagine himself dashing from the carriage, stripping off his clothes like some deranged person from a film and diving into the welcoming embrace of a meadow and its millions of perfectly pigmented green fibres.

He noticed the person on the other side of the table which separated them, looking out of the window.

“So green.” he said to the middle aged man who had lifted his eyes from his laptop for the first time on the journey. The man looked at him briefly, before returning to his electronic companion. “Well, that’s what happens when it never stops raining somewhere. Useless bloody country.”

He wanted to explain to his fellow traveller how lucky he was to see such vivid natural beauty but stopped himself. He remembered that he too used to feel that way, why else had he found himself in a place where you only needed the fingers on a pair of hands to count the days when you had to look for the protection of an umbrella during a year. Well now he was back in the landscape which he had previously rejected and amazingly there was a clear blue sky stretching out for miles in front of him. Not a cloud to be seen, the only thing that broke the enormous swathe of blue was a perfect golden sun, high in the sky spreading it’s warmth and goodness across the land. Of course he hadn’t left this land purely on account of a few rain clouds. Other factors had pushed him away as well but it had been the trite and easy answer to the question that so many had posed.

Soon he was stepping down from the train, not though to rush naked through the fields but walking calmly to the station exit. He stepped outside and moved towards the taxi rank, the sun, which had been pleasant when he joined the train, was now getting distinctly hot; he already knew that his friends would be making endless jokes about “bringing the sun with him”. Well if a bit of warmth made them happy, he was pleased to oblige. He got into a cab and asked the driver to take him to his brother’s place, which was to be his home for the next six weeks.

The next day he woke with a sore head. He had spent the evening catching up on his brothers news from the last few years and reacquainted himself with the flavour of West Country cider. He had forgotten how potent the stuff could be, it had been a while since he had fallen victim to a hangover but as the saying goes “When in Rome get smashed on Thatcher’s.”

Once again the sun was shining brightly, already penetrating the curtains in his room even though according to his mobile phone it was not yet seven o’clock. He pulled open the flimsy cloth that covered the window; once again he was struck by the vivid landscape in front of him. Jamie had a large garden, mainly laid to lawn and looking beyond the combination of trees and hedge that made the boundary he could see a sports field with a cricket pitch in the middle of it. The grass was cut very short in the area where the square was located, this created contrasting shades but green was still the dominant impression on his hazy cider tinted vision.

The plans for his visit were sketchy to say the least. The last year in Spain had been a tiresome one. His eighteen-month relationship with a local woman had come to a niggling, frustrating ending. Both of them realised that they didn’t really want to be with each for the long run but neither of them had the courage to move things forward. Eventually he had decided to force the issue, telling Maria that it was over and that he was returning to England for the summer. He figured that they both needed time away from each other in order to make the separation work, just some breathing space to focus on themselves and a new, single, future rather than arguing over the roots of a broken past. He had rented out his place as a holiday home for six weeks, removing the temptation to head back to Spain. But that was it as far as his thinking had gone, just get away from the situation and let time resolve the problem. It was exactly the same when he left this country at the end of a summer, which by English standards had been exceptional.

What a summer that had been, every day appeared to be hotter than the last. Endless azure skies during the day, followed by nights that were sticky and uncomfortable. Suddenly everything other than work was being done outdoors, socially things had been amazing at the start of that incredible spell of sunshine. Nobody went home after work, this was in the days before air conditioned offices, so come five o’clock a long cool drink was a necessity. It started off with four or five of them meeting up in the pub but soon that turned into fifteen or twenty colleagues, then friends and partners came along as well. Luckily The George had a huge beer garden, which could easily swallow the gasping hordes that gathered to drink the night away.

He remembered how people had tentatively started sitting on the green lawn of the pub garden as the benches and tables had filled. It seemed that any grass in England was ready to pass on its unexpected moisture from its innocent green surface to the rear of your light trousers, cue much childish ridicule from your mates as you rose to get your round in or head home for the evening. That summer was different though, pretty soon any moisture had been baked from the ground, the green started to lose its lustre and you were safe to rest upon its surface, no matter how light your clothing was.

It was on one of the early Friday evenings of the summer, when some moisture was still in the ground that he had first started talking with Jenny. She was sitting on a dark green cardigan that had been placed on the ground, he was briefly at a loose end as an intense conversation with his good friend Derrick had been suddenly halted by Derrick’s urgent need to use the pub toilet. Whilst looking around he briefly caught her eye and noticed her smiling as she spotted the dark patch covering the bottom of Derrick’s expensive linen trousers as he moved upwards and away from the grass.

By the time Derrick returned the conversation with Jenny was flowing nicely. She had a face that appeared to be permanently set to smile mode. They didn’t talk for more than twenty minutes that evening but by the following Friday they were firm friends after a week of carefully engineered bumping into each other in work. Walking from the bar towards the garden area, they could see that all the seating had already been taken.

“Come on,” she said. “Sit on the grass it hasn’t rained for days now, it’s sure to be dry.” They did and it was. When it was time to finally leave for home, he knew that he really liked her. There was though a problem; Jenny was living with Phil, her long time boyfriend. Although she hadn’t said anything bad about Phil, in fact such was her personality that he couldn’t imagine her saying something bad about anyone, yet somehow he had the feeling that Jenny was open to the idea of something that went a little further than sitting on the grass of a pub garden once a week.

That though was exactly the pattern that they slipped into for the next month or so of that increasingly blistering summer. As the colour steadily drained from the grass, losing all its vital intensity and turning to a dull beige, he had begun to think that maybe this was something more than a friendship. Then she went on holiday! Of course she had mentioned that she would be going away for a couple of weeks but it still came as a shock to him when she went. He still went to The George after work but he felt distracted and listless, often leaving early. Without her, what was the point in being there? He was, he realised, completely besotted. Finally came the Monday when she would return to work. As usual he made his way to the drinks machine on the 3rd floor at 10.15. He came out of the lift and turned the corner, she was already there, coffee in hand, beaming smile on her face and looking gorgeous.

“Hi stranger,” she said. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“It’s been a while” he replied. There were too many people bustling around for him to say what he really wanted to say and then she surprised him.

“Look, I know it’s Monday but how do you feel about meeting for a while after work tonight?” She said. “I’ve got something I want to talk to you about and don’t want to put it off.”

How did he feel? Fantastic. She had been on holiday but she obviously couldn’t wait to get back to see him. Fantastic, yes that was the only word for it. Jenny suggested that they go somewhere different for a drink, he could choose, she said. They agreed to meet outside work at 5, now he just had the little matter of getting through the longest day in the history of office work.

Finally 5 pm crawled around, he cleared away his desk and made his way to the main entrance. No sign of Jenny yet, he waited anxiously. Maybe she had changed her mind, realised that she was being foolish. He started to think about their brief conversation earlier, could he have said anything to upset her? His mind was working overtime to recall what he could have done to ruin the relationship. He looked at his watch it was 5.01 pm. The next wave of people came through the door and there she was, smiling as ever and moving towards him. His worries melted away in an instant.

Unexpectedly rain was in the air, it was actually quite a pleasant surprise after the long dry spell of recent weeks. Obviously it wasn’t a night for sitting on the grass at The George, so he decided to go to The Drummer, a rather upmarket bar, with plenty of quiet nooks for them to hide away. Jenny agreed on his choice of venue and they dashed off towards the pub as the rain got heavier.

She said that as it was the start of the week she only wanted a soft drink, he got an overpriced pint and hastened back to join her. He looked at her expectantly, all the while part of him was actually feeling sorry for Phil, a person that he had never met. Poor Phil, how would he cope without this wonderfully vibrant person in his life? These thoughts were interrupted as Jenny started to talk.

“Well this is quite exciting and I wanted to tell you before anyone else in work,” she said. Then paused to take a drink.

Exciting, oh god, she’s leaving Phil! She wants to move in with me, this is it, this is it. His brain was rushing at a million miles an hour. His mum would love Jenny, was 22 too young to get married?

Jenny put down her glass and looked directly at him.

“Phil and me are going to have a baby! Found out when we were on holiday, we are so happy.”

He couldn’t remember much about the rest of the evening. He knew that he was home by 6 and by the next day he decided to leave. How could he have been so stupid? Thinking back on all their conversations, Jenny had never given any indication that she was looking for anything more than someone to talk to. A few drinks whilst sitting on the grass on summer evenings, somehow his feeble brain had turned that into a great romance. They hadn’t even held hands let alone embraced, so where had this obsession of his come from? He was such a fool.

Over the course of the next few weeks he made contact with a friend who lived in Spain and plans were formed to break away from the pain of watching Jenny’s very visible, ever expanding joy. By the time he left England several weeks of rain had wiped away the pale hue that covered the land and replaced it with a darker, richer green. Ah yes, England’s green and pleasant land. Here he was again, back home once more and thinking of a time when everything looked and felt so very different.

The Box

On the table was a wooden box, Teak maybe but he wasn’t certain. He thought that Mr Mort told him it was Teak when he dropped it off at the house last week but so many of things that Mr Mort had told him, well they just passed straight through his head. Not that Mr Mort wasn’t a nice, informative and helpful man, it was just that he had been told so man things by so many people over the last month that his brain had simply stopped taking on any new information.

 

Wouldn’t it good if you could do just that, he pondered. Just like pressing the pause button of your iPod. Simply put things on hold for a while, then when you are ready, just press play and off you go again. It could be an hour, could be a day, just to give you the time to stop and fully takes things on.  Actually what he really wanted was a rewind button, so that he could move time back, yes that would be much better. How long to go back though? Well at least 3 weeks but wouldn’t it be better to go back 3 years or better still 30.  That would help him decide what to do with the box.

 

His initial thought was that he should take the box to New York. Just the sound of those two short words when joined together bought back so many memories, that his newly discovered rewind function would give him virtually instant access to. Each event in his life cold be given a title and time frame he decided, allowing him to twirl the wheel on the control panel to locate that amazing day in when they had trawled the huge flea markets of Chelsea, their first taste of Tamales, the joy of that sudden blanket of warmth which engulfed them after entering a diner for a hot chocolate on a freezing December day.

 

And then there was Glasgow, not so glamorous maybe but so many happy thoughts were associated with the place. Where would his time line take him to here? The wonderful experience when they first encountered the genius of Charles Renie Mackintosh thanks to his reassembled house in the grounds of The Hunterian Museum, wading their way through the enormous tea menu at Tchai-Ovna surely the most hidden away café in that wonderful city, maybe the feeling of joy when they eventually found the small lane which lead them to the entrance to The Lighthouse (what is it with Glasgow and hiding places away?), then there was the music and the musicians that Glasgow had given them over so many years.

 

This was not going to be easy, the box and it’s contents were the most important thing in his life and yet here he was, making plans on how to dispose of it. Part of him, a huge part in fact, wanted to keep it with him. Just leave it on the table; alongside the plants and in a place where it would get nicely warm as the summer sun fell upon it.  He had promised that it would go somewhere special, somewhere important to both of them. Odd then that their home wouldn’t be that place, one day though they would be reunited. He just had to decide where.

Blue Volvo

Blue Volvo

 

Dad would always come to watch the games, in fact he became an integral part of the school team set up, when he offered to help ferry the boys around in the back of his large blue Volvo. Not many of the other parents appeared to be too bothered about watching a group of clueless eleven year olds running around with huge amounts of energy but very little direction. One exception was the fearsome Mrs. Cook, whose son Lee was a pretty hopeless winger, no matter what the weather was she would always appear on the sidelines just as the game was about to start. With the statuesque physique of Soviet body builder she would rush up and down the line muttering threats to anyone who came close to her beloved son. As soon as the game ended she was off, much to the relief of any of the opposition who may have given Lee a hard time.

 

I say that Dad always came to watch me play but after one tense and unusually noisy week at home he didn’t appear on Thursday evening for tea as he normally did. Mum was very, very quiet and even I could tell that something was wrong.

 

“Why are we starting without Dad?”

 

“Ask him when you see him,” Mum softly replied.

 

“When will that be?”

 

“I’m not….just eat this now, come on. Then you can watch Top of the Pops.”

 

“Will Dad be home then?”

 

“Maybe, I don’t know, just eat up will you.”

 

Well, he didn’t appear for Top of the Pops, or even by the time I had to go to bed. I was woken by the sound of the telephone in the hallway, which was a shock as the phone was seldom used after 9 o’ clock and the green glowing figures on my bedside clock told me that it was almost five to ten. Carefully easing myself from the bed I made my way to the door and pulled it open a fraction. I couldn’t hear much of what was being said. In fact for long periods of time Mum didn’t appear to be saying anything at all. Maybe the person of the other end of the phone had stopped talking and she had just fallen asleep, it was really late after all. Then suddenly she blurted out,

 

“No, no that’s not fair, don’t say that!”

 

Then it went quiet again, other than the occasional sound of her blowing her nose. In my anxiousness to find out what was going on, I fully opened my bedroom room and got down on all fours to crawl toward the stair landing, hoping to see as well as hear what was happening. My Mother was sitting on a tread near the bottom of the stairs, something I’d never seen her do before. The hand that wasn’t holding the phone to her ear was raking through her normally rigid hair with increasing regularity. Still, few words were coming from her. Then suddenly she put the phone down and held her head in her hands, her back and shoulders gently shaking. I didn’t know what to do, so I just crawled back to bed, pulled up the covers and eventually went to sleep.

 

Mum woke me the next morning.

 

“Come on, it’s time to get up. I think I’ll walk you into school today. That’ll make a nice change.”

 

Dad normally dropped me off in the car, so I guessed that he still wasn’t around.

 

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

 

“Oh he’s had to go off for a while. We shall be ok though, it’ll be our little adventure.”

 

Not much else was said during breakfast or the walk to school. Oddly in the afternoon break Mr. Evans, the sports teacher, came up to me and said that he would pick me up for the game tomorrow morning, as he knew that Dad wouldn’t be able to make it. How did Mr. Evans know that Dad wouldn’t be around for the game? What was going on?

 

Friday night saw the same sort of routine as Thursday had, although this time we didn’t have Top of the Pops to distract us. It was an edgy awkward night with Mum looking as though she going to burst into tears at any moment. To be honest it was a relief to go to bed at least things were the same in my room as they always were. I slept pretty well and woke early, looking forward to the game. Mum fussed around more than normal, asking me again and again,

 

“Have you got everything?” “Have you got your boots?”, “What time does the game start?”

 

I was relieved when Mr. Evans turned up. As soon as his car pulled up outside the house, I dashed out, “See you later Mum,” I shouted and I was in the car before she had a chance to respond.

 

It was a foul day and the squeak of the wipers smudging the rain across the windscreen of the rusting minibus, which Mr. Evans used to take the team to games, was providing a strangely hypnotic rhythm. We collect the rest of the boys from the school and head off.

 

“Where’s the game being played Sir?” I ask after the incessant squeaks start to finally drive me to distraction.

 

“Kingswood.”

 

“Where’s that?”

 

“About ten minutes away.”

 

And sure enough about ten minutes later we swerve into a car park and park up.

 

“Over there boys, the red door, that’s where the changing rooms are.”

 

We dash across the puddle covered tarmac and into the changing rooms, jostling for the best place to sit, Mr. Evans struggles through the door with the kit bag.

 

“Five minutes boys”, he shouts and then heads back to the corridor.

 

“How come your Dad didn’t bring you?” asks Lee.

 

“He had to go to London,” I blurt out! Why did I say that? No one from round here ever goes to London, why would my dad have gone today?

 

“Really? Wow, didn’t you want to go?” asks Lee.

 

“He wanted me to go but I said that I had to play in this game, so he had to go without me.”

 

“Has your Mum gone?”

 

“Course not, women don’t go to London. She’s at home. Anyway it’s time for the game, come on.” I rush out to avoid having to make up more nonsense.

  

The game starts. The pitch is muddy, our opponents much bigger and better than us and I’m having a shocker. Everything I do goes wrong and my team-mates are getting feed up with me. My attention starts to drift and then suddenly I notice that Dad’s Volvo is pulling into the car park. I try to concentrate on the game but my vision is drawn to the car, the large blue door swings open and my dad steps out. The game goes on around me, I try to rejoin the action; I don’t want Dad to see me letting the team down. Suddenly I’m running at twice the speed of the other players. I win a tackle and pass to a team-mate who almost scores. I can feel Dad’s eyes watching me but I keep my head down, watching the ball, getting the ball, going round one player, two players, just the keeper to beat now and I hit the ball as hard as I can. It’s past the keeper before he can move.

 

“Great goal, Jonesy,” shouts someone. I turn to where I think my Dad is, just in time to see the blue Volvo pulling out of the car park.

With This Ring

“Hey dad was this mum’s, don’t think I’ve seen it before?”

Sorting through the drawers in mum’s dressing table, I kept coming across items that stirred memories of happier times. The large turquoise pendent, which cooled my brow as she clasped me to her chest on those hot summer nights of my youth; The necklace that had to be cut out of her hair when we were on holiday in Wales; The gothic looking earrings that we teased her about in the 80’s, memories flew at me faster than I could process them. The one constant in these fleeting images was mum’s serene and beautiful face, no matter how garish the accessory or how the bizarre the clothes, her face was always composed, relaxed and peaceful. Why she felt the need to adorn it with all these strange trinkets was a mystery to me, both then and now.

“Let me take a look” dad replied.

He bought the ring close to his face; his eye’s visibly straining to focus on the item in his hand. And then, a look of recognition and for the first time in several days a smile briefly moved aside the heavy mask of despondency that he had been wearing recently.

“Well, well. Haven’t seen that for a while.” He said.

“It looks expensive”, I said. “How come mum never wore it?”

“Expensive eh, well that was the point I guess. Not that your mother was swayed by such things. In some ways it was the best thing I ever bought her, not that I thought so at the time. Taught me a lot of things that ring, a lot of things.”

Dad slipped the ring into the pocket on the front of his cardigan and eased back into the chair next to the bed.

“Where did you get it dad?”

“Paris.”

“Paris! I thought you and mum were skint when you went there. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the story of that flea ridden hotel.”

“That’s the one, tiny room on the 5th floor, no lift, pillow made of concrete and bedding like tissue paper, in a freezing cold room.”

“Yeah, yeah the whole garret thing. All you needed was Juliette Greco whispering some existential chanson in your ears to complete the scene.”

Exotic travel was not something that my parents had done a lot of in their 42 years of marriage. One of the few exceptions was a much talked about trip to Paris a year or so after they were married.  Every now and then, something French would set one of them off to take a stroll along the boulevard of their memory.  It could be the smell of some bread, a robust bottle of red wine or maybe the unusual sound of Fránçois Hardy on the radio.

“Smell this Jean, It’ll take you straight back to the Rue Des Vinaigriers and that wonderful little bakery….” And for the next hour or so they were far away, in a world of their own, rushing to finish each other’s sentences as the memories of their big adventure came pouring out of them.  They had to remind us that a trip to Paris was something very special in those days. This was long before the time of budget air travel and the Channel Tunnel. They had taken almost as long to get to and from their beloved city as they had spent there. Yet it was clear that every moment of their trip there had been a defining period in their time together. Odd then that the ring now nestling is dad’s pocket had never been mentioned before.

“Come on then Dad”, I said. “What’s the story with the ring. Why have I never seen it before? Why didn’t mum wear it?”

“Oh it was a long time ago and, well, it’s a bit embarrassing to be honest. Doesn’t show me in a very good light. Your Mum though, she was right then, straight as they come you Mum. Right then and always right.”

And then the story unfolded. It was towards the end of their trip and they were walking through the Parc Monceau on a lovely spring afternoon. Mum had noticed the simply dressed woman about 10 yards in front them, as she let out a small cry and crouched towards the ground. As she got up again, she started talking excitedly in French to my mum and showing her a gold ring that she had apparently found in the sandy footpath.

Although my parent’s loved Paris, their grasp of the French Language was minimal to say the least. Dad explained that all they could do was smile and nod to show their admiration of the splendid looking ring.

Having racked his brain for something suitable to say to the excited lady, Dad was apparently delighted when he remembered the phrase “Bon Chance” before he and Mum went to walk on, simply pleased to witness some good fortune coming the way of somebody who looked as though they needed it.

“That was when things started to change,” Dad said. “Suddenly the woman started talking in pigeon English, saying that if she could sell the ring, she would be able to buy food for her children. She saying how poor she was and again we were genuinely pleased for her good luck, what a magical city this was.”

Apparently she then started to say that as her papers weren’t in order, she wouldn’t be able to sell it. She was cursed, her children were cursed. This cruel city taunted her by giving her something that she needed but couldn’t use. Then the tears started.

“We didn’t know what to do, son. The lady was distressed; we couldn’t do anything to help. I should have guessed that something was up from the fact that the more agitated she got the better her English became but I didn’t see it at the time.

“You take ring.” She said, forcing into my hand. “ You lovely young couple, take ring be happy, sell for many Franc’s. Take, take, make you happy.”

I looked at Jean; she was shaking her head at me.

“Please take. Sell ring, take your lovely wife out for a meal. Very nice ring, you get good price. Take ring, take ring.” Said the woman.

“That was when my head was turned,” said Dad. “Suddenly I started to think about how great it would be to sell the ring to one of the local jewellers and take your Mum for a fantastic meal rather our usual ritual of a picnic by the river.”

Dad went on. “Let’s do it, I said to Jean. She was still shaking her head but it was too late for me. The woman asked me for 10 Francs in exchange for the ring, so that she could feed her children. She assured me that it was worth much, much more than that, maybe 1000 Franc’s. I swear son, all my thoughts were about treating you mum with this amazing windfall money. My head was turned and though Jean was telling me not to do it. I gave the woman 10 Francs, which didn’t leave us with a lot of money. In an instant, she was gone.”

“So why is it here Dad, why didn’t you sell it?” I asked.

“It’s a fake son. Worthless bit of brass. We went back to our hotel to speak to only French person that we knew, the owner of the place. He laughed in our face.

“Oh no, not you as well,” he said. “Always the English, they fall for this trick are you greedy or stupid?”

“He was right on both counts of course,” said Dad. He went on. “Your Mum just looked at me as though I was a kid trying to pinch a gob stopper from the shop. I was such a mug, a greedy stupid mug.”

“It’s a lesson,” she said. “Let’s work for what we want, if we can’t afford something we won’t have it. It’ll be all the better when we can afford it.”

“I told her that I just wanted to make her happy son,” but she said that I was daft. “We had taken our time and saved our money, we were in Paris,” she said. “ The sun was shining, we had each other, how could she be happier? Let’s keep this stupid ring and if we ever look like we might forget who we are and why we love each other, we can look at it and remember our time in Paris.”

“We only had to get it from the draw a couple of times in the rest of our time together. And yes it was always your mum that reached for it, rather than me. You take it son. I think that woman in Paris was right. In a strange way that ring did make us very happy.”

If Jesus saves.

“If Jesus saves, why can’t I?” He said

 

“I don’t think Jesus saved all the junk mail that came through the front door Dad.”

 

“That’s what he said, he wanted to save, so I’m saving this, at least until I’ve had a chance to read it all.”

 

“Its just rubbish Dad”.

 

“No son, Jesus was very concerned about the Postmen….”

 

And off he went, time to tune out and rely on occasional grunts to show that I’m listening. Not that this was really required, when it comes to conversation, Dad is pretty self-sufficient these days.

 

Since moving back in with him this had become a well-rehearsed ritual. The huge tangents, the nonsense and his insistence, which was unshakeable. It was odd to think how much I missed my dad when I was spending more time in his presence than I had in the last 30 years. Sadly the connection now was more physical than mental. The old Dad had moved on several years ago, the new one was maddening and infuriating but occasionally hysterically funny.

 

The fact that the flyer from the local church was 3 years old was irrelevant to Dad. That the church had actually closed a year later, should have made this scrap of paper which proclaimed the dates and times for the Easter services an easy thing to dispose of. Dad though, was having none of it.

 

“Val likes to go to church. I bet she’d like this,” he said.

 

“But this church isn’t even open any more Dad, so we may as well get rid of it, eh Dad?

 

“These old church papers can be worth a fortune, I’ve seen it on the auction programmes on TV. That bloke, you know the one with his glasses on a bit string. Blimey what a state to get in son. Poor chap can’t even remember where his glasses are; yet they still make him go the telly. The way old people are treated these days is shocking, poor chap he should be in a home somewhere, his family make him work you know. He doesn’t want to do it but they say they need the money, terrible son, bloody terrible.  Val will know what to do with it”

 

I was just about to explain the there was quite a difference between a beautiful 14th century parchment and a slightly out of line, photocopied, black and white flyer, when I remembered how pointless that was. If he isn’t aware that his wife Val was dead, what was the point in getting upset about David Dickinson and his daytime TV pals.

 

 

 

“I’m glad you don’t make me go the telly son,” he said. “I couldn’t cope with all that fancy food they have to eat. Thanks son, I know I can count on your brother and you. The pair of you are a couple of crackers I don’t know what your Mum and I would do without you.”

 

There, he’s done it again. I don’t know which emotion to reach for first. Sadness about my mum, anger about my brother or simple pleasure that Dad, finally, seems to like me.

 

“Oh Dad, it’s nothing.” I say. “Let’s pop the kettle on, do you fancy a sausage roll as well? I got some from Gregg’s earlier.”

 

“Great son, no tomatoes though those pips get stuck in my teeth.”

 

The kitchen hadn’t changed much in all the years I’d been away. Dad had made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want any of my crockery mixing with his odd assortment of cups and plates in various states of distress. So my things were still in storage, in a state of limbo. Just like my own life.

 

On the wall behind the tea caddy was a picture of Pete and I. I was around 15, just a blur of hair, acne and braces. Pete, 2 years older, leaning on the bonnet of his shiny red Ford Escort. That look in his eye, which said, I’ve worked out how the world works and I’m going to make it work for me.  There are signs of Pete all around the room, his handwriting is everywhere “Tea”, “Beans”, “Chopping Board” and even “Fridge” and “Freezer” because Dad tends to confuse the two of them. It’s typical of Pete really; he’s great at coming up with simple solutions that actually work. Without him I’m sure Dad would have moved into a home years ago, so why do I get so angry when I hear his name or see the evidence of his thoughtfulness?

 

Well I guess that’s it really. Every time I hear of something that he’s done, I think about what I haven’t done. The times when he’s been there for Dad, when I was too busy to spare the time. And where did it get me? Well, thousands of pounds in debt and back sleeping in my old childhood bedroom, trying to build a life again with a man that I was previously too embarrassed and short tempered to spend any time with.

 

 

I take the mugs of tea into the front room, placing them carefully on the Formica covered coffee table.

 

“There you go dad, I’ll get your sausage roll for you now.”

 

By the time I come back into the room his mug is on the floor, a large brown stain steaming up from the carpet.

 

“Oh Dad, what did you do!” I say rather too loudly.

 

“It fell off that book, the one you put on the arm of the sofa. You shouldn’t have put it there son, it’s daft, no way that could support a cup of tea.”

 

“I put on the table! You must have moved it.”

 

“Pete wouldn’t have put it there, he always puts it on the coffee table for me.”

 

I know that I can’t win this debate, so I simply pick up the mug and using the tea bag that I’d just thrown in the bin, I make him another one and return to the front room.

 

“Oh tea that’s nice of you son,” says Dad as he smiles at me. “ I was just thinking how nice it would be to have a cuppa. Someone’s made a mess on the carpet here, maybe you can clean that up for me later.”

The Lift

1

He was excited. Finally he was going to be the one taking the lead, making things happen, getting things done. He didn’t have to rely on his dad or mum and most importantly, he could do things for his brother, Neil. His life was about to open up and he woke up ready to embrace this new world.

 

It hadn’t been easy, it taken him three attempts to pass his driving test and all the while time had ticked on, whilst he waited for his life to really start. He was so sure that he was going to pass at the first attempt that he had already bought a car with the help of his parents. It was Neil that he had to face first when he got home that afternoon.

 

“So are you taking me to the gig tonight?” Neil had shouted from the kitchen as the front slammed shut behind Tony.

 

He knew that Neil hadn’t meant to put him on the spot; he’d only said it because he was so sure that his little brother would have passed.

 

He couldn’t find the words to say “no”, so Tony just walked through to the back of the house. His face gave the story away.

 

“No way!” Neil said. “Dad said that you were a cert. God, all those hours the pair of you have you have spent in that car. What happened?”

 

“Dunno, I was just rubbish.” Tony replied. “Drove too close to parked cars, terrible reversing around a corner and not enough use of the mirror apparently.”

 

“Well I guess dad will be dropping us off then, he won’t mind.” Said Neil.

 

“No but I do.” Said Tony. “ I really do.”

 

That was almost two years ago. Since then Neil had moved out, to a flat in the centre of town. Tony was still at home with his parents and finally after countless lessons from his dad and more recently a driving instructor, he had managed, eventually, to pass the test. Today he was going to head across town on his own to pick up his brother, so that they could all enjoy a family lunch together.

 

Neil was the perfect big brother, Tony’s guide and protector through school, lender of music and books and anything else that was important in his life. He just had that knack of picking up on something and saying, “Hey bro, I reckon you might like this.” And inevitably Tony did.  Neil was always paying for them both to get into gigs or the cinema, was always the first to know about those things that would sell out in a flash. Without his brother to guide him, Tony would have had a very dull life indeed. And yet now Tony could do something that his brother couldn’t do, drive a car.

 

When Tony came down for breakfast, his mum appeared distracted, worried even.

 

Are you sure that you’ll be ok?” she asked him.

 

“Of course I will Mum, I’ve been waiting so long for this.”

 

“Well be careful, I do love you, you know. I just want you to be happy, I hope you’ll be happy.”

 

“Of course I will,” he replied. “I just feel great, things won’t ever be the same again. I won’t have to keep bothering dad for a lift all the time. I can even take you out sometimes, if dad will let me!”

 

“Oh I’m sure that he will, I’d like that you know, I’d really like that.”

 

And then she was gone. Tony finished his breakfast whilst flicking through the sports pages of the newspaper. Then he heard the back door close and the sound of his dad’s footsteps heading towards the dining room from the kitchen.

 

“OK son, how are you? His dad asked flatly, on coming into the room.

 

“I’m fine, what is it with you and Mum today?” He replied.

 

“Nothing son, it’s a big thing, you’ve done really well. Take care though, I know that you’re sensible but just take it steady, not just today but, well just you know, be careful.”

 

“OK, OK, I get the message. God I thought you two would be a bit more excited for me but it’s all doom and gloom here today. I think I might just head over to Neil now, at least he won’t be moping around.”

 

So there he was, behind the wheel of his Nissan Micra, new Arctic Monkeys CD playing unnecessarily loud, pulling away from the pavement and taking the best journey of his life.  Apart from one near miss with a young female cyclist near his destination, it all went remarkably smoothly, so twenty minutes later he was edging into a parking space near Neil’s place.

 

It took a couple of goes but eventually the car was parked, he turned off the engine and the music cut out at the same time. His window was open and suddenly he realised that he could hear the sound of clapping and laughter, before Neil’s voice shouted out.

 

“Yay, best parking ever! Brilliant bro, brilliant.”

 

Tony just burst out laughing, that was what he wanted today to be like. “Yeah I’m pretty good!” he replied. “Taxi for hire, where would you like to go sir?”

 

“Let’s see, London, Paris how about New York? Or is that too much for a first trip” Neil replied. “You’re early, I haven’t finished my breakfast yet. Lock up and come inside.” He continued.

 

They went into Neil’s flat and Tony could see some half eaten toast and a mug of coffee on the small table in the bay window overlooking the street. His brother had obviously been looking out for him. Neil quickly made him an instant coffee before handing him a newspaper.

 

“Great piece on Kerouac here.” Neil said whilst waving the carefully folded broadsheet at him.

 

Kerouac was one of the writers that Neil had badgered Tony in to reading when he was still in school. He remembered the look of surprise on the face of his English Lit teacher in school one day when he had proclaimed his love of “On The Road” whilst everyone else in the class was going on about Harry Potter.  The other kids had looked blankly at Tony; if he was honest, he enjoyed their confusion. He liked that sense of being different to the other kids. During the lunch break the teacher in question; Mr Coles, wandered over to him in the playground.

 

“So “On The Road” eh, pretty good but have you read Big Sur?”

 

“Not yet sir,” he replied. “Neil said it’s not as good”

 

“And who is Neil might I ask?” Said Mr Coles.

 

“Oh he’s my brother.” Said Tony. “ It was his copy of “On The Road” that I read, he told me how great it was and he was right.”

 

“I see, well no matter how good your guide is, don’t forget to have your own opinion on things as well. Why don’t you read it and let me know what you think.”

 

Tony tried to form his own opinions, he really did. It wasn’t his fault that Neil was instinctively right about everything. When his brother moved out Tony really missed him. He just couldn’t chat with his mum and dad in the same way. Not that they spoke much either. The house appeared to have all the energy sucked out it and he found himself spending more and more time on his own, in his bedroom.  Occasionally his dad would suggest some sort of family outing, which inevitably his mum would reject as it was either too far, too busy, too cold or just too stupid an idea. Eventually his dad just gave up suggesting things.  All this made Tony look forward even more to the time that he spent with his brother and now that he was completely in control of his own transport the future was looking good.

 

The journey back home went well; Tony didn’t feel at all nervous. The sun was out, the windows were down, the music was loud. He couldn’t stop smiling.

 

“Top class.” Neil said as Tony switched off the engine. “You’re a natural. Let’s see what the happy couple have in store for us.” He continued.

 

Tony let himself in; his mum was in the hallway still looking anxious. He noticed that her eyes looked a little red.

 

“What’s up Mum, surely you haven’t been that worried about me driving Neil here?”

 

“No Tony. No, that’s not it. Come in to the front boys, your father needs to have a chat with you.”

 

“Hey Mum,” said Neil, “don’t I get a kiss?”

 

“Sorry love, I’m a bit distracted today. Come through, how are you?”

 

Tony was the first to enter the room, he saw his father sitting on the old yellow sofa, which has been in that room for as long as he could remember.

 

“Mission accomplished Dad.” He said excitedly.

 

“Good son, good.” Replied his dad without raising his head to look him in the eye.

 

By then Neil and his mum had followed him into the room. The elation Tony had been feeling oozed out of him, like the last few grain of sand racing through an egg timer.

 

No one said anything for what seemed like an age. Eventually his mum spoke.

 

“Your dad’s got something to tell you boys.” She said softly.

 

Dad had a strange half smile on his face as he finally raised his head to look at the boys.

 

“I’m moving out boys, things aren’t right between your mother and me. I think it’s for the best.”

 

Tony stared at father, before spluttering out.

 

“Why today? Why today? This was my day. Why do you have to spoil everything for me.”

 

He heard his mother gulp, halfway between a cry and a cough. He couldn’t look at her though. He turned his face towards Neil.

 

“Can’t really say I’m surprised.” Neil said. “You two have been walking on eggshells for months.”

 

Tony couldn’t believe that Neil hadn’t mentioned this before. He had thought that Tony shared everything that was important with him. How wrong he was, even Neil had let him down. Well he could make his own way home. Tony needed to get away, before he knew it, he was out of the house and in the car heading towards town, faster than he had ever driven before. The traffic lights at the junction had changed from green to amber whilst he was still several car lengths away from them. He kept going; he wasn’t going to stop for anyone or anything. He just kept going.

 

 

2

Neil awoke with a start; Debbie was shoving him roughly in the shoulder.

 

“I’ve got to go,” she said “That idiot brother of yours will be here soon. I’ve had some toast and I’ve left some for you.”

 

“OK” he replied sleepily. “I’ll call you later to let you know how it went. Don’t think it’s going to be good though.”

 

“Well at least it sounds like some things in your family might be out in the open at last. Who knows, you might even tell them about me?”

 

“I will Debs, I will but today might not be the right time.’

 

“I know but soon eh.” She replied. “Oh there’s a really good piece on Kerouac in the paper, shows what an asshole he really was. Bye”

 

Neil checked the clock on the floor; it was later than he had planned to get up. It had been a good night but he expected to pay the price for it today. Things were most definitely coming to head for his parents; the call to lunch was an ominous sign.

 

When he spoke to his mother on phone a couple of days ago, she had been so quiet that he had to ask her to speak up on several occasions.

 

“Sorry Mum, I can hardly hear you.”

 

“Come over on Saturday for lunch, if Tony passes his test on Friday he can come and pick you up.”

 

“OK Mum, let’s hope he can do it this time. At least that’s something good to hope for.”

 

“Don’t say anything to Tony, he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

 

“He never does, you have to lead him by the nose if you want him to smell the coffee.”

 

“Don’t be cruel Neil, he does his best. He loves you, you are so important to him, please don’t let him down like I have.”

 

“Mum, you haven’t done anything. Anyway let’s not get into all this; you know it just gets you upset. I’ll look after him and I’ll see you on Saturday. Take care”

 

Neil had quite liked playing the older brother when he was in school. It was fun to have a little protégée that would hang on your every word. As life had got more strained at home with his parents, he’d enjoyed having the straightforward time with his brother who had turned into a willing sponge, gleefully soaking up anything that Neil wanted to pass him. The problem though was that sadly Tony appeared to be incapable of making any friends of his own, so everywhere that Neil went Tony came too.

 

Although they were only a few years apart, the gap in their respective ideas of good time appeared to be getting further apart. Well that was what Neil thought. Tony though was completely oblivious. Neil didn’t have the heart to leave his brother out of things, he’d hoped that things would change once Tony passed his driving test but the kid kept messing that up as well.  Well finally that had changed, maybe Tony would be able to head out on his own, no longer having to rely on his dad to take him everywhere. Debbie had pointed out that it could actually be worse.

 

“It’s obvious,” she’d said. “ Now he will be able to come and go at any time, no restrictions around what your dad has to do. And where will he come to? You of course, you who provides him with everything that he needs.”

 

Of course it made perfect sense, as everything that Debbie said did. They had been together around six months now and yet somehow he’d never managed to mention the fact that he had a girlfriend to the rest of his family. He hadn’t meant to keep it a secret but whenever he spoke to his mum it was just a case of listening to her worries and fears about her own situation.  Dad just dropped Tony off or collected him and went home, didn’t attempt to come into the flat. If Neil went home, dad never appeared to be around or if he was, managed to kill any potential conversation stone dead. As for Tony, Neil just knew that his brother would see Debbie as a threat, so that was that.  On one occasion Debbie had threatened to just turn up at his parents place and introduce herself but luckily he had managed to talk her out of that one. “Let’s get today out of the way,” he said to himself. “Then I’ll break the news.”

 

Neil wandered into his living room. “Bloody hell, he’s here already.” He said to himself as he noticed Tony attempting to reverse in a space outside the flat. He walked outside to greet his brother and although it wasn’t the smoothest bit of parking he’d ever seen he decided to give a round of applause for efforts.  Tony milked the adoration before they headed back inside the flat.

 

Neil desperately needed to buy himself sometime; he was feeling a little hung-over after the night in the pub with Deb and her mates. Luckily he remembered that she had mentioned the piece on Kerouac in the paper. He grabbed it quickly. Brilliant, it was one of those huge broadsheet articles, that would keep Tony occupied for a while whilst he went back to his room to prepare for the day ahead.

 

Somehow they made it to their parent’s house in one piece. Neil hadn’t felt so exposed for a very long time. Tony was an incredibly nervous driver; Neil lost count of the number of times that he’d found himself flinching involuntarily as they came within a whisker of hitting a number of cars, bikes and even, at one point, a lamp post as Tony lost control of the car whilst playing with the volume of the CD player.

 

“Top class.” Neil said with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as Tony switched off the engine. “You’re a natural. Let’s see what the happy couple have in store for us.”

 

If that had been a bad experience his heart sank even further when he saw his mum. Although they had spoken on the phone several times lately, he hadn’t seen her in the flesh for several weeks. She looked worn out. A dress that had previously looked good on her appeared to be two sizes too large, her hair was lank and her eyes reminded him of those sad animals that you see behind bars at the Zoo. Looking out but not wanting to focus on anything, as they know that they won’t be able to reach it. She had obviously been crying recently, those sad eyes looked watery and red.

 

“Hey Mum,” said Neil, “don’t I get a kiss?”

 

“Sorry love, I’m a bit distracted today. Come through, how are you?”

 

“I’m ok Mum.” He whispered. “I’m here for you, you know.” He said as he hugged her thin frame.

 

The news when it came from his father was not a shock to Neil. In fact in a strange way it was a relief. The old yellow sofa creaked as his dad moved awkwardly after announcement. Neil was looking at his mum when suddenly Tony started yelling at his dad. Surely Tony wasn’t that removed from reality, Neil thought. How could he live in this house and not see what was going on? It was obvious that Tony thought that today was all about him. His excitement had clouded him from the idea that anything else could be going on in the world.

 

Tony had now turned to face Neil. Neil said the first thing that came into his head.

 

“Can’t really say I’m surprised.” Neil said. “You two have been walking on eggshells for months.”

 

And with that Tony dashed from the room. His mum made a half-hearted attempt to go after him but the front door had already slammed shut before she had left the room.

 

“Let him go.” Dad said. “He’s been so wrapped up in his own world that this must have come as a shock to him. Give him time he’ll be back, we can have lunch and sort things out.”

 

“Lunch!” Neil shouted. “How can you even think of lunch, look at what’s happening. Look at Mum. Christ Dad, you can’t just flick the switch and expect us all to fall into line.”

 

Neil heard a car roar away, massively over revved. Skidding and screeching up the road, then the oppressive silence returned to the room. Dad shuffled on the sofa again and small symphony of creaks filled the void that Tony had left.

 

 

 

3

So this was the day he thought to himself as he awoke from his fitful sleep. Twenty-two years, he still couldn’t believe that it had come to this. Best to get it out in the open at last and move on. The last few weeks had been awful, better to be on his own somewhere than sneaking around his own house.

 

He figured that Neil would know what was going on, even if the two of them hadn’t spoken much recently. Neil had always been closer to him mum, in fact both the boys had now that he came to think of it. He wasn’t really sure why that was? He had tried to treat them well and be a good dad and in the main things had been ok. It had just never moved beyond that, they didn’t hug, they didn’t even laugh much. They all just sort of tolerated each other.

 

All those hours he’d spent in the car with Tony didn’t help. At first it had been fun if a little scary and yes he’d taken pride in the way that Tony had mastered the basics of driving pretty quickly.  The trouble started after that first, failed, driving test, everyone assumed that it was a failure of teaching that was the cause rather than a simple case of nerves on the big day. Although they had persisted for a while, Tony just got more and more impatient with him. As for Jean, well she couldn’t wait to criticise him. He’d become used to that over the years, so different from the early days when their time together was joyous, how he had hated having to go to work and leave her at home. Every hour apart from her was an hour wasted. Now then could hardly stand to be in the same room as each other.

 

He made a coffee and then went out to the garage for the umpteenth time in the last few weeks. Everything that he was going to take from there was already boxed and ready to go but it was a peaceful place to keep out of everyone’s way. He put on his battered old radio, sat on the threadbare armchair, which had followed him from his parent’s house and flicked through the morning paper, which he’d picked up in the hallway on his way through the house.  He eye chanced upon a large article on Kerouac and whilst reading the largely critical piece remembered his youthful enthusiasm for the American and the rest of the Beat writers. Oh yes, the simple days of cheap red wine, roll ups and preposterous conversations late into the night with his collection of ever more disagreeable friends.

 

“God, what self righteous prats we were.” He said to himself.  He made his way into the house to use the toilet and came across Tony having his breakfast.

 

“OK son, how are you? He asked his son

 

“I’m fine, what is it with you and Mum today?” Tony answered aggressively as he always seemed to do these days.

 

“Nothing son, it’s a big thing, you’ve done really well. Take care though, I know that you’re sensible but just take it steady, not just today but, well just you know, be careful.” It was as though he was subconsciously trying to prepare Tony for what was about to unfold.

 

“OK, OK, I get the message. God I thought you two would be a bit more excited for me but it’s all doom and gloom here today. I think I might just head over to Neil now, at least he won’t be moping around.”

 

With that Tony made for the front door and was gone.

 

Another failed conversation, he thought to himself, as he made his way upstairs. Jean was heading in the opposite direction and there was an awkward moment when it was unclear who was going to make way. He edged backwards, leaving plenty of room for Jean to pass.

 

“You ok?” he asked as she moved passed him.

 

“Oh yes, I’m just great.” She replied. “I’m really looking forward to telling my sons that their parents have failed and that everything is going to be thrown into turmoil.”

 

“I said that I’d tell them,” he replied. “It’s my decision to move out, so it’s only fair that tell them.”

 

“Fair, that’s a good one. Is it fair to leave me after all these years, fair to leave me on my own in this house, cause now that Tony can drive, I expect that this will just become a hotel for him. Oh yes, I’m ok but I hope you’re not. I hope you know what you are doing to me and the boys.” With that she burst into tears and dashed into the lounge.

 

He stood in the hallway for while, listening to her sobbing. Separated by just a few inches of brickwork but by years of combined neglect and loathing, which mattered much more than the physical barrier between them at that moment.

 

That last exchange between them had been typical of the way things had been. Not like the early days of their friendship and then romance. Jean had been almost painfully shy, wherever they went she would clasp his arm tightly, hardly saying a word. Leaving all the conversation to him. How he had loved to talk to her. He would have an opinion on everything and delighted in telling her exactly what it was. Gradually though it appeared that she got bored of listening, truth be told, he got bored of himself, so to a degree he could understand the increasing indifference that she showed towards his opinions.

 

And yet until recently there hadn’t been major rows, just an incremental diminishing of their love, friendship and even respect for each other. Jean didn’t appear to want to do anything that he suggested, so eventually he stopped putting idea’s forward. He went to work; he came home and waited to go to work again. Things had finally come to a head when Sam and Becky, one of the few couples that bothered to retain even a veneer of interest in the pair of them had been over for a meal recently. One minute he had been discussing the wine that he had chosen for the evening and then, out of nowhere Jean launched into a vicious diatribe about how pretentious he was.  If that was what she really thought of him why should he stay around. Just thinking about moving out made him realise how little he enjoyed his life currently.

 

The next day he told her that he was going. At first she laughed, she didn’t believe that he would have the nerve to do it. The next day he told her again and that they should tell the boys.

 

“Not before Tony’s driving test,” she said. “At least let him get through that without anything else on his mind.”

 

It was a fair point he conceded. He agreed not to say or do anything until Tony had taken the driving test.  So it was very odd to get that phone call at work from Tony, explaining excitedly that he had passed his test and that it was all down to the recently hired driving instructor. Well that wasn’t exactly what Tony said but it was he’d heard.

 

“Great son, well done. You mother will be thrilled.” he said.

 

“She was Dad, so was Neil.”

 

“I tell you what son, why don’t you drive over and collect Neil tomorrow and then bring him home for lunch. How would you like that?”

 

“Good idea, I’ll call him back and suggest that. See you later.”

 

And Tony hung up on him. This is it then, he thought to himself, tomorrow I move out. He had already discussed things with a friend at work who had a large spare room in his flat. A new life was just around the corner.

 

When he got home Jean was sitting in the lounge with the TV news playing. She didn’t get up, just looked at him.

 

“So what happens now?” she said.

 

“I’ve done what I said I would do,” he replied. “I suggested to Tony that he brings Neil over for lunch tomorrow. I’ll tell them then.”

 

“Funny, maybe we do still have something in common,” she said. “Are you’re really going to leave me?” she said.

 

“I am, he replied. “I can’t exist like this anymore.”

 

And now on this lovely sunny Saturday morning the time had come. He had been keeping an eye on the road from the bedroom window and eventually Tony’s Nissan Micra came into view. He made his way downstairs and shouted out to Jean.

 

“The boys are outside, I’m going into the lounge. Bring them in and I’ll tell them straight away.” He said.

 

He went into the room and sat on the yellow sofa, it was the first thing that had bought after moving to this house. Much like their relationship it was split and damaged, they should have replaced it years ago but neither of them could take the initiative to change things. He could hear Tony talking excitedly in the hallway and then the door was pushed open.

 

“Mission accomplished Dad.” Tony said excitedly.

 

“Good son, good.” He replied.

 

Jean and Neil followed Tony into the room. This was it then, the time to break the family. His mind went blank, eventually Jean broke the silence.

 

“Your dad’s got something to tell you boys.” She said whilst glaring at him.

 

His head dropped whilst he tried to think of what to say. This is ridiculous he thought to himself, just do it. So, do it, he did. He couldn’t really recall what he had said, he was just aware that Tony was yelling at him and then as Neil started to say something, Tony fled the room. He heard the car; everything else was silent as he moved uneasily on the couch.

 

 

4

She hadn’t taken his eyes off him all night, he was moving now. Edging towards the side of the bed. Was he being considerate and trying not wake her or was he just trying to avoid her by getting out of the bed without having to discuss the events of the forthcoming day? It had to be the latter, she decided.

 

She was still in a state of shock. Amazed that it had come to this, thank God that her parents weren’t alive to see this. They had been so proud on her wedding day. She remembered that late in the evening during the wedding reception her dad admitted to her how worried her mum and he had been about her shyness. How they couldn’t see her ever getting married, how could she if she couldn’t even talk to a man that wasn’t part of the family? Yet somehow it had happened and everyone was delighted.

 

She narrowed her eyes and Phil tiptoed towards the door, having grabbed a bundle of clothes so that he wouldn’t need to return. Then it struck her that was the last time that they would share a bed. It really was over.

 

This was going to be a very tough day but it was up to Phil to tell the boys, this wasn’t her doing, for once he would have to do the talking. She was worried about Tony, he was so elated yesterday when he finally had passed his test. It wasn’t fair of Phil to bring him crashing back down to earth so quickly. Phil had insisted though it had to be today, it appeared that he couldn’t stand to be with her for a moment longer than was necessary. She heard the toilet flush and Phil’s footsteps on the stair treads, may as well get up she thought, no chance of any sleep here.

 

She had a long warm shower, trying to remove the strain of the last few weeks or even months and yet as she towelled herself dry, she still felt as listless and hopeless as she had before. After dressing she tentatively made her way downstairs, it was ok, there was no sign of Phil, he must have gone out to the garage. She flipped the switch on the kettle and the water quickly boiled. He can only just have gone outside she thought. Having made herself a coffee she went to sit on the sofa in the lounge. God, the memories that were wrapped up in this creaky piece of history, it was Phil’s choice rather than hers and she decided that next week it should go. Too many reminders of the past, time for a fresh start. She looked up to see Tony staring at her.

 

“Are you sure that you’ll be ok?” she asked him.

 

“Of course I will Mum, I’ve been waiting so long for this.”

 

“Well be careful, I do love you, you know. I just want you to be happy, I hope you’ll be happy.”

 

“Of course I will,” he replied. “I just feel great, things won’t ever be the same again. I won’t have to keep bothering dad for a lift all the time. I can even take you out sometimes, if dad will let me!”

 

“Oh I’m sure that he will, I’d like that you know, I’d really like that.”

 

She could feel the tears starting to form in her eyes, so quickly moved past him and back upstairs, knowing that he was eyeing her curiously.

 

She went back into the bedroom, sat upon the bed and tried to work out again what had gone wrong. She had really loved Phil in those early years. He had been so different to anyone else that she had met when her cousin had introduced her to him at a wedding. He was gentle and kind, thought before he spoke and the things he knew, well it was amazing to her that someone of the same age as her could know so much about the world. Gradually though she had started to grow tired of his opinions and when she had tried to voice her own, Phil hadn’t been so keen to hear them.

 

She heard the sound of the front door opening and thought that she should go to wave Tony off, By the time she got halfway down the stairs the door was shut and Tony was already on the other side of it. Phil must have seen Tony off as he was now heading up the stairs. She hesitated for a second before Phil move back and indicated that she should come down.

 

“You ok?” he asked as she moved passed him.

 

“Oh yes, I’m just great.” She replied. “I’m really looking forward to telling my sons that their parents have failed and that everything is going to be thrown into turmoil.”

 

“I said that I’d tell them,” he replied. “It’s my decision to move out, so it’s only fair that tell them.”

 

“Fair, that’s a good one. Is it fair to leave me after all these years, fair to leave me on my own in this house, cause now that Tony can drive, I expect that this will just become a hotel for him. Oh yes, I’m ok but I hope you’re not. I hope you know what you are doing to me and the boys.” Once again she felt her eyes filling and she dashed into the lounge to save her embarrassment. This time the tears flooded out. This was a horrible, hateful day.

 

At least when the boys came back she would have Neil to rely on. He had been the only person that she could talk to recently and even though she hadn’t explained everything she was sure that he had read between the lines. It worried her that Neil appeared to be getting bored of Tony, they would need each other more than ever if Phil left. Poor Tony he worshiped Neil.

 

How strange that the two major relationships in the family were at the point of falling apart. It appeared that Tony was as oblivious about this state of affairs as she had been. One casual remark about Phil and his precious wine to Becky and Sam and that was it, he was off. She had tried to make him see sense when he told her that he was going. In fact at first she thought that he was joking, he’d never walk out on her. It was only the prospect of destroying Tony’s mental state before his driving test that put things on hold for a few weeks. The damage was done though, whenever she said anything he just went on and on about how tedious she had become to live with, how she never wanted to anything with him, so what was the point of them being together. She didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

 

Then came the call that she dreaded, of course in any other situation it would have been wonderful news.

 

“Mum, Mum, I’ve passed!”

 

“Really, oh well done son, well done, I knew you could do it. I’m really pleased for you. Dad will be delighted.”

 

“Thanks Mum, I’m going to call him know. See you later.”

 

That was it, her life was over. That night Phil came home from work and said that he had told Tony to bring Neil over for lunch tomorrow. He would break the news to the boys and that, would be that.

 

So here was the moment, Tony had let himself in with Neil right behind him She noticed the startled look on Neil’s face. She really must look as awful as she felt.

 

“What’s up Mum,” said Tony. “Surely you haven’t been that worried about me driving Neil here?”

 

“No Tony. No, that’s not it. Come in to the front boys, your father needs to have a chat with you.”

 

“Hey Mum,” said Neil, “don’t I get a kiss?”

 

“Sorry love, I’m a bit distracted today. Come through, how are you?”

 

“I’m ok Mum.” He whispered. “I’m here for you, you know.” He said as he hugged her.

 

She felt like it was the only nice thing that anyone said to her in person for weeks, How she loved Neil, how she needed him now.

 

No one said anything for what seemed like an age, she couldn’t cope with the delay any longer.

 

“Your dad’s got something to tell you boys.” She said softly.

 

She just looked at Neil as Phil spoke. She detected a slight knowing nod of his head as Phil said those fateful words. Then Tony was shouting at Phil and then at Neil, she wanted to calm him down but she didn’t have the words, didn’t have any words, there was nothing she could say. Tony brushed pass her and made straight for the front door, she tried to catch hold of him, just to hug him, she had no words but she could still hug him. He was too quick for her, he was already out on the drive way by the time she opened the front door. In an instant, he had pulled away.

 

“Wait,” she cried, “wait” but it was too late he would never hear her over the roar of the engine.

 

 

5

Debbie read the paper and laughed. I wonder if Neil will ever see what a jerk Kerouac was she thought to herself.  What is it with boys and drunken selfish bums; no matter Neil was fun to argue with, she loved his rather naive enthusiasm. He was cute, no doubt about it.

 

Time to get on though, she had a lot to get done today, she had a feeling that she would need to give out a lot of love tomorrow. She remembered when her parent’s marriage fell apart; she was so thankful that she had been away at Uni at the time, I guess Neil is lucky to have this flat to escape to. How will the strange sounding Tony cope with it? She wondered.

 

She hadn’t seen so much as a photo of any of Neil’s family, so she just had to make do with her self concocted carton images of them. The drably dressed simpering mother, the father, so taciturn that he didn’t even have a mouth and then there was Tony a teenager with the face of six year old for some reason.

 

She wasn’t that keen to meet the family herself, yet she wanted Neil to show her off, to show them how much he valued her. One day it will happen, just not today or tomorrow as Neil often said. Time to go, she went back to the bed that they had shared last night she found Neil still fast asleep. She started to gently rock him by his naked shoulder.

 

“I’ve got to go,” she said “That idiot brother of yours will be here soon. I’ve had some toast and I’ve left some for you.”

 

“OK” he replied sleepily. “I’ll call you later to let you know how it went. Don’t think it’s going to be good though.”

 

“Well at least it sounds like some things in your family might be out in the open at last. Who knows, you might even tell them about me?”

 

“I will Debs, I will but today might not be the right time.’

 

“I know but soon eh.” She replied. “Oh there’s a really good piece on Kerouac in the paper, shows what an asshole he really was. Bye”

 

She recovered her bike from the communal hallway, time to dash home and change before meeting up with Beth for their traditional Saturday catch up.  It was something that she and her sister did as often as they could. Find a nice café and spend and hour or two going through the events of the week. Debbie loved riding her bike around town on a Saturday morning, none of the stress or the traffic of the normal journey to or from work. She could hear the birds in trees, the radio’s coming from houses and cars. She loved the variable soundtrack that this provided, why did people block their ears with iPods and radios when this ever-changing soundscape was there for free.

 

By the time she hooked up with Beth, Debbie was just overflowing with a joyous love for the world and everything in it. Beth couldn’t help but notice.

 

“Wow, something’s really going well for you Miss,” she said whilst breaking out into a huge grin. “Is the lovely Neil the cause of all this?”

 

“I think he is, he doesn’t know it yet but I think he’s the one. It just works with him, I think the sisterhood could be loosing me Beth, it’s only a matter of time before I take the pledge!”

 

“Great, I have to say that I approve, you two make a great couple.”

 

And so it went for the next hour or so before Deb had to make her excuses and leave.

 

“Ok, sis must dash, I promised Mum that I’d go and see her this afternoon. I’ll call you tomorrow to let you know how Neil got on with his parents.”

 

The traffic on the road was still peaceful and the traffic lights kept magically turning green as she approached them leading to a nice smooth ride. Suddenly a car came hurtling towards her, through lights, which must have been red. She turned her head, saw the driver, oddly young looking, wiping his eyes oblivious to her. She knew in an instant who he was. Metal met metal, and Neil would have to cope with more than the separation of his parents.

The First Test

Although it was only late afternoon in the middle of July, the sky was getting darker by the second. Suddenly some small birds startled him as they rushed overhead, heading for the cover of the tree’s in the distance, the wind picked up, the rustle of the leaves swirled around his head. Come on rain, he thought to himself, save me, save me.  He had no more than sixty yards to go and yet he didn’t really want to arrive at his destination.

To his left there were a few claps and cheers but he could already hear the mocking voices in front of him.

“Last one guys and he doesn’t look up for it.” “Straight and fast Don, this one won’t get near it.” “One more guys, it’s in the bag.”

Everything he was wearing appeared to be too big for him; he could hardly walk let alone run. What would he do if he had to run? His legs appeared to be swathed in a pair of duvets. He’d never make it, he hadn’t a chance. Worse than that, he couldn’t grip with his fingers, the padding and protection upon them made it feel as though his hands were trapped inside two pillows whilst trying to hold a straw. Although he couldn’t properly hold the straw, the weight of it appeared to be immense, it was like trying swing a steel girder when he attempted to move it forward as he walked, this was ridiculous.

Blunty was heading towards him. “Don’t try to be a hero, just get me on strike and leave things to me.”

This was the first time that Blunty had ever looked at him whilst talking. So used to his indifference was he, that for a moment he assumed that the comments must have been intended for someone else.

“You got that?” Blunty said

“Yeah, yeah. No problem. Tight, tight, keep it tight.”

Blunty ruled this world by means of fear, intimidation and ridicule. An optimist would see this as a chance to impress, in order to be welcomed into Blunty’s world of late night drinking and casual bullying. Having been of the receiving end of this treatment for the last year or so, sadly optimism was not one of his strong points. All the thoughts that entered his head at this time were linked to the potential aftermath of a humiliating failure.

Suddenly he was at the wicket; he turned to look at the umpire. Twenty-two yards had never looked like such a short distance before.

“Middle please.” He shouted towards the umpire. After a few cursory directions were yelled back at him he attempted to scrape a groove in the hard ground which would at least give him a chance of standing in the right place.  The fielders gathered around him, some close enough to wipe the sweat from his brow and they started to yell words of encouragement to the bowler.

The bowler! Even though he was around 50 yards away, he was huge, must be a least 6’6”, clawing at the ground, short sleeved shirt straining to constrict the bulging biceps.  What on earth had he let himself in for?

Hard to believe that this had started as “fun”. Playing cricket at school, was easy, nobody really new what they were doing, it was brilliant to be able to smash the ball as hard as you could. Sometimes it flew to the boundary; sometimes you just swished through the air before hearing the ball crack into the stumps behind you. Win, lose, it didn’t really matter. Then Dave told him that Staplegrove were looking for players for the youth team. The very next Tuesday his kit bag was packed with bat, box and whites and he was in the car with Dave and his dad getting a lift to the ground.

It was then that he first encountered Blunty. They had entered into the small clubhouse and Dave spotted Blunty behind the bar.

“Excuse me,” Dave said. “We’re here for the youth team practise sessions. Can you tell us where we should go?” He asked.

“Bugger me, can’t see you two pansy’s bringing much to the team.” Blunty shot back. “The changing room is round the back, get changed and let’s see if you surprise me.”

“He seems nice!” Said Dave as they walked towards the rear of the building.  It was a sign of things to come. After an hour or so spent in the nets with some lads of their own age with a couple of older players leading the coaching, Blunty appeared.

“Right then, lets see how quick your reactions are,” he shouted at Dave. “I’m going to bowl at you from about fifteen yards, lets see how you cope.”

Poor Dave took a bit of a battering and several balls crashed into his ribs as he struggled to deal with the deliveries. Finally one of the other older chaps stepped in and called an end to the session. He could see the tears welling up in Dave’s eyes as they headed back towards the changing room but Dave made sure that Blunty didn’t see the discomfort he was in. Dave was always much more determined than he was, if he had been in Dave’s situation that night, he didn’t think he would ever have returned. A week later they were back for more of the same.

So here he was, last man in, three runs to win, five balls left.

“Right arm over, five to play.” The umpire shouted and with that the bowler started to charge towards him. The world around him fell silent, with one exception. All he could hear was the thump, thump, thump of the bowler’s feet as he came ever nearer. Look at the ball, look the ball, he thought to himself, somehow managing to tap the bat against the ground in readiness to strike the ball. Who was he trying to kid?

In a whirl of arms and legs, the ball catapulted towards and past him. The collection of groans from the fielders within touching distance let him know that somehow the ball had missed his stumps and he completed his feeble attempt to swing the bat, with the ball already nestling securely in the wicket keepers gloves.

“Hey, what are you doing?” shouted Blunty as he walked towards him. “ Just keep it tight I said, I can get the runs you just need to keep you end solid. No fancy shot’s just get a single, for Christ’s sake it’s not much too ask.” He continued.

“Yeah,” he mumbled in reply, “sorry.” He thought he could feel rain in the air, not enough to take them off the field but maybe a downpour could come along. Here he was, in his first game for the first XI and all he could wish for was rain. He’d only been called up at the last minute as some of the normal line up had gone away on a stag weekend, leaving Staplegrove suddenly short of players. Dave and he got the call and here they were, playing with the big men, the first test of his cricketing ability.

The bowler had already returned to the end of his run-up, nonchalantly throwing the ball from hand to hand as he turned his cold blooded stare upon him.  He tried to compose himself by breathing deeply. Splat, that was definitely rain he thought and yet here the bowler came again, only this time, even faster. He saw the bowler’s right hand cocked just beneath his chin before surging backwards into the loop, which would end with the release of the ball. His body twitched in a vain attempt to fend off the small red bullet, too late, it smashed into his hip causing a searing stab of pain to flash through his body.

“Come on, one there!” shouted Blunty.

Blunty was trying to run a single, so he guessed the ball must have evaded the wicket keeper and fielders.  The only problem was that he couldn’t even feel his leg, yet alone move it.

“Wait!” he shouted. He looked up to see Blunty’s furious face for a split second before he turned and dived back towards his crease as fast as his middle-aged body could go. Even allowing for his lack of speed he had plenty of time to get safely back before the ball arrived at his end.

His eyes had flooded with tears from the excruciating pain; he tried to rub the agony away as Blunty walked towards him.

“Don’t ever do that again you little shit,” he said. “You go on my call, no matter what. You got it?”

“I couldn’t feel my leg, I would have been run out.” He replied.

Blunty glared, then said. “Go on my call, or you’ll never play for this club again!”

Well, he thought to himself, that wouldn’t be such a hardship.  The rain was really starting to fall now, the strong smell of grass suddenly magnified by the dampness, somehow lifted his spirits.

“How many to go Ump?” He asked.

“Three to play” came the reply. “Are you ok to carry on now?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” He lied. He didn’t think that the feeling in his leg had returned but what the hell, let’s do it.

The first few times Dave and he played for the youth team had gone reasonably well. They’d won a couple of games, had each scored a few runs and he’d even taken a catch or two. Dave was the better player and if he was honest, even then, he knew that he liked the idea of cricket more than the actual playing. He loved the strange clothing, the smell of linseed oil oozing from his cricket bat, the giant rollers which were used to flatten the pitch. The oddity of being part of a team game, which at any given moment consisted of the sort of one against one challenge than was more akin to a boxing bout than an eleven a side game. Even the fact that the game was so dependent on the weather made it attractive.

The strangest think about playing for Staplegrove was the stardom. Well, it wasn’t real stardom but they had some very enthusiastic fans that made you feel as though you were something special. The ground was situated next door to an institution, which housed people with mental health issues. Those patient’s who weren’t a danger to themselves or others, would enthusiastically watch the games. Cheering wildly when Staplegrove hit a boundary or took a wicket and even more oddly, constantly asking for the autographs of the players. Now as a fifteen-year-old boy this felt rather special, even if it was rather sad.  After the first couple of games, he would find himself filling idle moments at home or in school practising his autograph for his new fans.  He managed to create a ridiculously contrived piece of work, which the fans loved, even if they couldn’t decipher.

“What does it say?” they would ask, before he patiently explained what he had written.

“Yes, yes,” they would reply. “Clive Parker, it’s Clive Parker.” Whenever he was involved in the game, they would excitedly shout out his name.

“Good shot Clive” or “Well stopped Clive” or “Bad luck Clive “ if a ball reached the boundary before he had a chance to stop it when fielding. It wasn’t just him that received this treatment though; everybody in the youth team was treated in the same way. And they loved it.

Blunty and his followers though were cruel to these enthusiastic followers, never missing a chance to humiliate or abuse them. In an effort to impress the establishment at the club some of his team-mates started acting in a similar fashion, hoping that this would hasten their progress to the adult teams. On one occasion, he even heard Dave saying, “Chuck it back Spacker” after the ball fell at the feet of Kenny, one of the older members of our entourage.

As he tried to get his breathing back to normal level, his eye was drawn to the familiar, oddly dressed gathering, sheltering from the now more insistent drizzle beside the large oak tree just outside the boundary. And then he could hear them.

“Come on Clive-e. Come on Clive-e”

Instinctively he raised my bat to acknowledge them.

“Don’t worry about that bunch of half wits.” Blunty shouted out. “Concentrate on the game, we’ve got a match to win. Just get a single so that I can get on strike.”

The bowler was starting to run towards him, Clive’s pain had been replaced with the anger and hatred that he was feeling towards his so-called colleague at the other end of the wicket. Sod it, he thought, I’m finished with this club.

The bowler passed the umpire and then the ball was heading towards his pads. His front foot moved forward, and in a smooth crisp arc, seemingly out of his control, the bat that now appeared to weigh nothing at all, swung forward and made a perfect contact with the ball. He’d never timed a shot as sweetly.  In fact so pure was the connection, that he initially thought that he’d missed the ball altogether. It was only when he heard the cheering from his friends, gathered beneath the tree, that he realised that ball was flying through the air, way above the hands of stunned fielders, towards and then amazingly way beyond the boundary, six runs, game won. Just then the downpour really came, Blunty looked at him with seething resentment, before turning his back on him and running off, towards the pavilion.

Clive stood, dumbfounded as the rain splashed into his face. Finally he started to move away, looking towards the pavilion just in time to see Blunty lose his footing on the slippery turf and crash face first to the grass. Once again his friends under the tree cheered loudly, this time Clive joined in as well.