As part of a new series and feature, Bi-Literal, we are inviting writers and creative types to submit their short stories, poems and prose with a football theme. Here’s the first one in the series by Jayne Marshall (contains strong language).
‘Is this your real phone-number?’
Of course it is, I think. Before I have a chance to answer though – my mouth hanging half-open, ready to protest and assure – I’m interrupted by the ringing of the house landline. It takes a while to figure out why, even though it’s four o’clock in the morning and unlikely that anyone would be calling at such an hour, until I see him smirking at me, mobile in hand and realise he is testing the number I have just given him. Satisfied now, he makes to leave, turning back momentarily to tell me,
‘I’ll call you in the morning – don’t forget now! The game starts at half twelve.’
I’m pretty apprehensive about the whole idea, it’s been many years since I’ve been to a football match and I wonder how I’m going to make conversation. That, plus – at this rate – I’m only going to get about four hours sleep and I will almost certainly have a hangover.
‘Muuuuuuuuuuum! Dad! Muuuuuuuuuuuum, daaaaaaaad! We’re going to be laaaaaaaaaaate!’
I shout this up the stairs, defying a family rule. We’re always late for everything, I think bitterly, despite the fact I don’t even want to go to this stupid football match.
Once I get them in the van the journey to Highfield Road isn’t that long, just a few miles or so, but during the short time we’re on the road (and with Olly in the back, safely out of ear shot), mum and dad manage to ask me what feels like one hundred times, why I’m going out with him. I’ve been asking myself the same question, but being sixteen, hearing it from a parental source only serves to makes me more determined to fall in love with him and preferably to elope, or get pregnant – just to irritate them.
By the time we get there, I’m already feeling belligerent and as if to augment this feeling, there are loud, shouting men everywhere and Olly with his overconfident behaviour and lack of regional accent, is doing his best to make us really incongruous. His mother is a head teacher and his parents are so middle class that they have just recently left him, at sixteen years old, alone in their family home while they spend three months in India. While waiting for them to return, he is allowed to not bother to go to college, as his parents say there’s no point forcing him to until he’s ready. Considering all he seems to do is sleep into the afternoon and watch films, it looks pretty unlikely this will ever happen. I think about how he calls his parents by their first names and shudder, even though I feel dislocated amongst all these men, in this unfamiliar setting, I have a stronger affinity with the rest of the crowd, these strangers, than with Olly. At least all these other blokes are normal, I think to myself.
I’m in a new part of Bristol I’ve never seen before. I’ve been living in the city for two years, but as a student have mostly only seen the parts that students see. It makes me feel extremely mature, sophisticated even, to find myself here now, with a man five years my senior and an actual Bristolian to boot. All my housemates just go out with other students. I manage to maintain this sense of superiority, even after parking on a dual carriage way, walking for – not knowing the area or where we were going – what seems like miles and miles and miles, over a derelict train bridge and across a muddy park. As I only met this bloke the night before, it normally would have seemed a bit inadvisable to follow him for miles through unknown parts of the city had it not been for the fact that there are plenty of other people, decked out in white and red, also heading across the same bridge and park, with Ashton Gate in their sights (they’re lucky enough to know what they were looking for). On the way, Ben tells me;
‘I decided to start liking football for something to do on a Saturday.’
I feign understanding of this as a reason to become a fan of something and ask, in that case, if he comes every Saturday. He says,
‘No, this is only the second time.’
Then laughs so unexpectedly loudly that I jump. The laugh is over as soon as it arrived. I decide I like him.
The game is tedious, nothing seems to really be happening, as far as I can tell and every time a noise surges up from the crowd, I’m taken aback because I don’t know what they’re reacting to. It’s cold too and I hate being cold. Olly keeps asking me why I’m not enjoying it, not even waiting for an answer before jumping around because of some new excitement on the pitch and hugging the stranger next to him. I survey the people around me and can find nothing in their faces kind, or becoming. My gaze comes back round to Olly. He tells me he loves me all the time, I think I’m meant to be pleased, but I look at him now and can only find him ridiculous. God almighty, I think – how many more years until I can get the fuck out of this city? There are so many people here, but to my eyes, there may as well just be three: him, them and me.
The game’s about twenty minutes in and I’m giving myself a headache trying to maintain polite interest without looking like I’m claiming any real knowledge. When the rest of the crowd cheers and shouts, I feel like I should clap politely, nodding and looking to those around me, as if to say, ‘well done to you all, you must feel very satisfied with that pass.’ I don’t want to appear dispassionate – that would feel almost dangerous in this context – but I don’t want to look conceited either. This is hard enough, but trying to capture all that at the same time as being on date is making my life impossible. If I wore a watch I would be sneaking a look at it.
Someone nearby releases some foul smelling flatulence and whilst trying not to breathe, I’m desperately hoping Ben doesn’t think it was me. Even though everyone nearby is gagging and shouting blame at one another, me and Ben just stare ahead and pretend we haven’t noticed. Maybe it was him I think, suppressing a giggle, and surprisingly, I realise I wouldn’t mind if it was.
I was told we would have pies at half-time, I’d welcome something warm because I’m absolutely freezing. I realise that’s probably why football fans always have scarves, I don’t have any practical clothing on; I’m dressed for a date. What an idiot. I remember mum telling me about when her dad took her to a Coventry City match against Wolves in the sixties. She didn’t know about ‘colours’ and wanted to look nice for her father, so spent all week making herself a black and gold dress with a matching jacket. It took her all of about thirty seconds after walking proudly into the Coventry City stand to realise she was trussed up in opposition colours. I feel a bit now how she must have felt then, like there’s a glaring spotlight on my naivety. I hate being a cliché.
At half time Olly gets out a flask and some food. He makes me cringe unbelievably as he tells me how he has made us coffee from his dad’s imported coffee machine and instead of sandwiches he has bought us homemade ravioli from some deli in Earlsdon. If he whispered this to me I would think him a snob, but he says it so loudly that I think he is worse than a snob: I think he is an absolute twat. Luckily, most people have filtered out for half time, so I don’t think anyone really hears. I try and remind myself that he is being kind to me, he thinks this is what I want – something apart – but he never bothered to ask me and so he’s got it terribly wrong. He irritates me so intensely and for a reason I can’t even name, that I cannot return his kindness. When people start coming back in for the second half Olly unexpectedly puts his arm around my waist and steals a kiss. The man next to us says:
‘Look at that, young love, ey?!’
Then stares wistfully at me for the rest of the game.
We don’t go for pies after all, Ben says we should keep our places during half-time and it doesn’t occur to me to protest. I ask him some football related questions instead, he doesn’t know the answers to most and by way of reply does that startling laugh, as if to punctuate his ignorance. He looks sheepishly around him and I realise he feels as out of place as me, but he can moonlight because he’s a man and a Bristolian. He leans in and says cryptically,
‘Everyone here is really Bristolian.’
Like I should know what that means, and like he isn’t. I smell alcohol strongly on him and I realise he must be pretty drunk already, again. For some reason, I don’t mind this either.
The game restarts and I think, great, only 45 minutes to go. I’m sure my nose must have gone really red by now and I don’t want to think about what the damp weather has done to my curly hair. Something is happening on the pitch, but a combination of ignorance and not being able to see over the crowd means I can’t make out what. Suddenly, the man in front of me yells loudly and really forcefully, ‘YOU TWERPS!’ Because of his choice of insult and his heavy West Country accent, I’m assuming this is aimed at his team, Bristol City, for some transgression or other. I start to laugh, then turn to look at Ben and see he is laughing too.
The second half drags on for what feels like an eternity, I’m not paying attention to what is happening on the pitch anymore, but am going through the motions. Not for Olly, but for the rest of the crowd’s sake. Usually I would resort to a daydream to pass the time, but I can’t find comfort in this just now, every other life I imagine just serves to highlight my dissatisfaction with reality. I tell Olly I need the toilet, to get away for a bit. It’s like a different world outside of the stand, stark and empty, the crowd sound much further away than they actually are. I sit on the toilet for five minutes and think about what to do with my life.
The game ends nil-nil. We trek back across the park and the bridge and back to his car. I don’t know how much he has had to drink already, but it occurs to me he shouldn’t be driving. Ben seems unconcerned though and I don’t want to appear provincial, so I ignore it. Just as he’s about to pull out of the parking space, another car goes whizzing past and Ben yells, ‘you twerp!’ at him. We laugh. This moment of companionship gives me the courage to keep talking and I tell him about the only other time I’ve been to a football match.
It ends nil-nil. We go back to Olly’s house and he tells me he thinks girls wearing football shirts are sexy and asks me to put his on. I’m astonished, he sounds like something out of Reader’s Wives. He wants us to have sex, but I go home instead. I walk all the way, even though Dad was going to pick me up if I waited a bit. When I get home I call my sister in Leeds and ask if I can come and stay for a bit.