Home Game

issue #13 of PUSH, the finest sold on the street literary magazine in the world, is now available from http://joeenglandbooks.blogspot.co.uk/ which allows me to publish this story that i was proud to see in issue #12. it is the other side of the fence from “Thief of Fire,” the story i had in issue #11 and i’m very proud to say “Home Game” was described as “excellent” by an author as wonderful as David Peace, so i must be doing something well…

petrol bomb

Metallic alarm clang splits open your dream of rocks and the ocean breaking on Malin Head. Force yourself conscious. Sleep already a memory as you sit upright, blinking. Six o’clock. Early enough, but you’re a worrier when it comes to connections and that. No time for idling. Jagged toenails click on purple nylon sheets. Crawl from under the blanket and candlewick and into Saturday. Rearrange the covers so there’s no draft on her back and she can lie on. Curse the bed springs’ twang. Suppress a cough. Sweep up an armful of clothes from the seat at your side of the bed. Shiver. Bare feet stick to chilled lino.

Mid March. Still feels like winter. Clocks go forward in a fortnight. You’d have a holiday on Monday back home.  Not here. It’s a normal day. Work. And that’s why you came, but not why you stayed. You’re stood in the doorframe, gripping the handle. Eyes coping with the darkness. A glance over your shoulder. The outline of her back. Hair spread out across the pillow and beyond. That surge of love still overwhelms you. Heart lurches every morning when you say goodbye. A dozen years now. Almost to the day. Everyone told you she would be trouble. The kid, just out of nappies and no sign of a father. You knew it wasn’t like things back home. She was the one. A keeper. She stirs a fraction, mutters in her sleep then dives deep below the surface of consciousness and you close the door behind you. Gently. Cross the landing on tip toe.

In the bathroom and a dirty green piss. You sit down to muffle the noise and so as you don’t splash the floor. She hates that. On the throne with nothing to read but Wednesday’s “Standard.” Schoolboy error. Like the Hammers defending against Notts County, or so it says. You’ve been doing your homework. One set of Magpies on Tuesday and today it’s the other Magpies, or so you’ve learned. Forty years of age and your first trip up north. Ridiculous. Shake the head loose of your daydreams. Too early for a shite. Tea and fags will sort that out later.

Lather up and rinse round the face and neck, then under the pits and finally your feet. Water turns grey and leaves a trail of scum on the sink side when you let it go. No need to shave. You did that last night, while she watched the telly. Bath and an early night before the big day. Fuck knows how you’re dirty this morning.  Scalding water straight from the tap and then a warm towel off the radiator. Instant heat amazes you. The best thing ever. Civilisation’s greatest luxury.

Brush the teeth with that minty stuff she’s been buying. Almost stings the mouth off you, but in a good way. Stare out into the shrinking dark as you get dressed.  Blank sky. New moon. The vague outline of hundreds of houses. Just like this one. All in a long line. Maybe two or three with their lights on. Early risers. Forgetful drunks. Concerned parents who left the one in the passage burning over night to calm fretful kids. You don’t know. You don’t know any of them. Millions of people all over this city using all their money to buy identical brick boxes to help them remain anonymous. Invisible. Ten years you’ve owned this place and you don’t know a soul from your next street. At home everyone knew each other in your town and the next one and most folk in the one after that. Over here there’s a few from work you get on with, great for a pint now and then, but you only truly know her and the young feller.

At least you used to know him. Coming up 16. No longer a boy. Flinches when you say rashers instead of bacon or soccer instead of football.  Taken to calling you Don as it makes you sound less foreign. That wounding look of contempt he gives you when he catches you talking about your home town. But you’ll always be there for him. You promised her that from the start. You’re not his dad, but you’re the next best thing. You’ve given him a good home, never raised your fist and you keep trying your best to get on.  That’s what today is about.

You stand ready to knock him awake, but there’s a pale beam seeping under his door. 40 watt bedside lamp. Probably fell asleep reading. Penguin modern classics. French and German blokes you’ve never heard of. Translated but. That or listening to the radio. Capital. The only music you can hear before dawn in a city of 7 million people. Fern Kinney at number 1 singing “Together We are Beautiful.” Awful shite. You leave him a while longer as you head downstairs to fix a bit breakfast.  One stair creaks. The cracked tread you forgot to replace.  You curse but know the sound’s not enough to wake her. Or him.

Fluorescent strip light on.  Harsh and clinical brilliance. On the table, there’s a feast. She’s done you proud. Rounds of sandwiches. Wrapped in Clingfilm. Cheese. The sliced stuff he likes and some tomatoes in yours as well. Sausage rolls. Hard boiled eggs and a pinch of salt in a twist of brown paper. Penguin biscuits. Oranges. You blink out tears of love and gratitude then put the kettle on. It’s the small things.

A smoke at the back door while the tea brews. Dew on the washing line and the end of the lawn illuminated by the kitchen light. Clouds of smoke and breath vapour disappear as the blackness above turns to a grey dawn.  Three cups. You drain yours, scalding the throat off you, then take the other two upstairs. Tap on his door. A grunt. Set the cup on the floor.

Back in your room. Diagonal slice of light across her left arm, as she grips the blankets close. You silently place the tea at her bedside. She knows you’re there. Keeps her eyes closed but smiles. Drops the covers. Holds out her arms. Whispers that she loves you and now you don’t want to leave. Let him go 300 miles up country for some fucking stupid game and you’ll stay with her. In each other’s arms. But you promised. So you sit on the chair at her side and stoop over. Hold her close as you can. Nuzzle her hair. Say you love her too. Fish two biscuits out your shirt pocket for the tea. This makes her giggle and stroke the bump on your nose where that cunt in the King Eddie’s smashed it with a stool because he blamed you for some fucking bombing you’d never ever heard about.

But you forgot your anger when you came home. She bathed the blood and the tears away. Placed a hand on your heart to slow your fury and promised you’d never suffer hatred again. You understood. The time had come. You moved. Not far. A few miles north.  Put your money into property and not across the bar. Became a family. You’ll be grateful for that until you die. No words. Holding her is the only way to say thanks. Then that sadness because you never gave her another kid wells up.

And then the young feller explodes out of his room, clatters downstairs like an Alpine rock slide and calls out it’s time to go. So you and her exchange a final smile and you start to head. You’re leaving and it hurts, but she blows you a kiss when you stop at the door and it has to be enough. You close it behind you. Framing her image. Knowing she’ll be back asleep by the time you’re at the foot of the stairs.

The front door’s open and the lad’s sat on the front wall, shovelling a sausage roll down him with the rest of the food in a bag. He waves it at you and you take responsibility. Walk down the empty street, swinging the bag as you go.  See the fading redness in the whitening sky over Lloyd Park. Rustle of birds. No traffic drowning them out. Head west down Forest Road towards the tube.  Cars and houses asleep. Wave down a milk float. A pint for you and a carton of juice for him. Cold like it’s been in the fridge. Shudder as you drink and shrink down into your overcoat. You’re getting old his look tells you. T-shirt and a Wrangler jacket enough to keep him warm. That and the scarf. Claret and blue.

There’s no county wears those colours you told him when he’d picked the Hammers as his team 5 years back. It wasn’t your game, same as Gaelic and the hurling have never been his, but you tried to understand at least. Pointed out Tottenham’s ground across the river and past the reservoir, but he wasn’t interested. He was West Ham and he wanted to know who you were for. You thought of Walthamstow Avenue, on the doorstep and a name that made you laugh, but you picked Norwich. Jerseys the same as Donegal. He cried when they lost the League Cup to Villa. Suffered the pain you didn’t feel. Another team in claret and blue, but that didn’t matter to him. Promised you West Ham would win the FA Cup to make things better. He was right. Alan Taylor. Twice. He shared his joy and it was the best day you’d ever had together. You were his other hero for getting a colour telly in time for the final.

All summer he nagged you to take him to a real game. She gave her blessing. Thought it would be good for the both of you. Start of the next season. Late August Bank Holiday. Spurs at home. Won 1-0. Happy times, but you never went again. Loads of reasons. Always an excuse. Working all the time to pay the mortgage, or spending your spare time doing the house up. Him starting big school. Homework and the athletics he had a flair for. Skinny. Sharp knees and shoulders. Elbows. On the track in the summer and the cross country in the winter. Out every weekend running. The odd night game with his mates from school whose dads understood the game. Highbury. White Hart Lane. Even over to QPR, but he still followed the Hammers. Saturday afternoons in the bath, washing the mud from his legs. Radio tuned to LBC for the updates. He’d tell you the score and you’d sympathise or congratulate, going on instinct.

Time passed. Six months and he’ll be 16. His future is A levels, University and all that, but still there’s the soccer. Now he wants to travel away. Reasoning he can get to see different cities and have a feel for them before applying to study there. You don’t know. She tells him when he’s of age he can please himself, but until then he wasn’t travelling 300 miles up the country on his own. So you’d volunteered. He picked a vague date on the calendar and you’d agreed. A chance to mend what hadn’t been broken. Just became frayed with neglect.

You both drain your drinks and leave them on the pavement outside the tube. Returns to Kings Cross and a five minute wait. Still early. Platform deserted. No office workers on a Saturday and too early for shoppers. In the smoking carriage. Ghosts of dark blue smoke. He folds his arms. Shuts his eyes. Still scrawny.  Downy fuzz on his top lip that’s never seen a razor. You yawn. Only 18 hours before you can get back to bed. And her.

Last night’s “Standard” on the seat opposite, open at the inside back cover. Lyall promising to put things right, though admitting Newcastle’s a tough place to visit. You turn the pages, then close the paper. Fold it up and throw it on the floor. Colours. Allegiances. Geography. Spurs territory gives way to Arsenal territory. Cockerels. Gunners. Hammers. Magpies. Kings Cross. Tea and a paper for you, but he’s itching to be on the train, urging you to hurry up though there’s half an hour yet.

Gulp it down then head for the station. Check again for the envelope in the back pocket of your strides. Flap buttoned on it and your wallet. Tickets. You show him. His face falls. He thought you were going on the special. You try to explain it’s a treat. More comfortable. Safer. Guaranteed window seats. He snorts. You shrug. A failure. No blood. No connection. You both see the special’s queue start to move. A fringe of coppers dwarfing and masking the shouting Hammers.  Ushering them onto the train. It’s leaving in 5 minutes. Disapproving glances at the lads singing. Like a strict primary school at home time. Hundreds of lads about the young feller’s age in jeans and jackets and t-shirts and scarves. He looks at you with pleading. You check the tickets and think fuck it. You’re with his tribe. You can go with them.

He’s running now and you’re doing the fast walk to keep up. Tea and milk and fags working on your guts and bladder. He turns, scarf above his head in triumph, shouts thanks and disappears onto the train. You’re almost breathless as you stumble down the platform looking for him. It’s a blur of scarfs, flags and faces. All shouting. All happy. The doors are closing, so you climb on. Pushing and squeezing your way forwards. Relentlessly apologising. Funny looks. Must be the accent. Or your age.

You see him in a carriage with some lads he seems to know. Sixth formers from school. Maybe, but they look a bit rough. Hair’s awful short. But he’s happy enough. Daft ones sitting in the luggage racks. Legs dangling. Bright red boots. Yellow laces. Loud chat about bands and girls, so you wink and walk on. He appreciates that.

Dive into the jacks and drop a load. Clean and empty, you’re back out again as Potter’s Bar gets left behind and the day is beginning. You find a double seat in with the older fellers up the front. Blokes in caps. Newspapers. Decks of cards. Flasks.  Conversation not shouting. Nobody sits next to you, so you take off your coat and roll it up like a pillow. Soon you’re back on Ballyhillion strand, staring out at the Inistrahull lighthouse. Facefuls of salty wind when you were a boy. You wake much later and the young feller’s next to you. Asleep. His head leaning into you and a book in his hands. Kafka. You take it from him and flick through the pages uncomprehendingly.

He stirs and smiles as he comes awake. Happy to be in each other’s company, you share the sandwiches and talk. He tells you about the game and who to look out for as the train passes the cathedral and castle of Durham. Getting close now. Picking up speed. Picking up noise. Picking up adrenaline. Everyone is blowing bubbles, apart from you, until he encourages you to join in and immediately you’re both singing and laughing and the world is a great fucking place as the train slides into the station.

Except it isn’t the actual station. It’s a siding in some goods yard. The train doors burst open and by the time you’re outside, it’s clear this shed like a barn is as far as anyone is going for a while. Coppers are everywhere. Directing you all into a holding area. Pushing. Shoving. Battering lads for giving them lip, or even for looking at them funny. Everyone penned in together. A senior copper in a peaked cap up on a raised gangway, shouting through a megaphone. Demanding silence. Obedience assured through indiscriminate blows of the truncheon. Your idea was for a few pints. Maybe a trip to the bookies. That’s gone. You’re told everyone will be marched from the station to the ground. No exceptions. Anyone breaking ranks, complaining, shouting or otherwise making a nuisance will be arrested. Then kicked to fuck someone adds and you all laugh until a copper lays the young joker out cold with a blow across the small of his back. Three of them drag the kid away. Face bouncing off tarmac and concrete. Unconscious but still blindly accepting a hiding.

Aware of your age, your accent and your fear, you place a proprietorial arm round the young feller’s shoulders and talk in whispers as you’re marched like criminals or collaborators through the streets. Cold bright day. Your head’s spinning. Tension and tiredness. People you’ve never met from a place you’ve never been are calling you all sorts of cunts. Hatred. Same as you felt in the King Eddie, except now you’re been taunted for being a Cockney bastard. You look round to try and understand what makes some lad who’s never seen you before say those sorts of things, but this copper is pushing you forwards. Keeping everyone’s eyes straight ahead. Stopping lads from singing. The regular sound of yelps after blows and kicks and digs. Vans crawling alongside. Ones with the doors open full of coppers. Angry. Moustaches. Blazing eyes. Ones with the doors shut full of young lads. Bleeding. The smell of a brewery masking the smell of young male terror and malevolence and your incomprehension of a game and a country you still don’t understand. At the young feller’s age you’d crisscross the border for Ulster championship games. Hitching lifts from lorries and tractors. Some towns you went through acted closed on a Sunday and flew Union Jacks, but that’s the way it was in the days before rock and roll. You’d didn’t hate what you didn’t know. Unlike here. Unlike now.

At the ground, you try to act the peacemaker. Play up the accent talking to the blokes on the gate. Buy a programme with a fiver. Pretend you don’t know the price of stuff. Thick Paddy out of his depth. Ask about getting up in the seats. One of the blokes starts pointing you in the direction, until some angry copper tells you to hurry up or he’ll lift you, so in you go, head bowed and take your place on the crowded terrace with the young feller, whose eyes betray a level of fear you’ve never seen in a human before. You know that both sides have picked the wrong lot to hate. It’s not the black and white or the claret and blue you should fear, but your ones in the uniforms. Bastards.

“I’m scared,” he tells you

“So am I,” you reply.

Glance at your watch. Two hours in the ground. An hour more in the city and then your escape on the train. 180 minutes to survive. More and more West Ham arrive. Your little bit of concrete is packed out. You get pushed from behind and lose your place on the step. All you can do is push back to get next to the young feller. Other side of the railing thousands of Magpies on the same sort of concrete steps. Swearing. Jeers. Up to your left in the seats it’s no better. Home fans shouting terrible things. Gestures. Hate. Hate. Hate. Contorted faces. Nobody is looking at the pitch.

A shower of loose change from some West Ham boys behind you sparks a volley of glass and metal in return. You stand half in front of the young feller. Tell him to keep his eyes on the game and you’ll watch out for missiles. He tries a half smile. It doesn’t come off. All around you the lads, not even grown, impersonate violent, evil men. Where are their dads to sort this out? Explain it’s wrong and that we’re all the same. All here for the game surely. Maybe their dads don’t care or have given up. Thrown up their hands in despair. Or maybe they’re like your young feller with no real father, only you and your best intentions to help him find the way through life. Right now all you can do is form an inadequate shield against torrents of brick fragments and rusty debris, bolts harvested from factory floors that pour down from a sky full of lead. You want to escape. To escort the young feller away from this madness. Race down the hill and onto the train back home. Then it happens. A petrol bomb.

A flaming bottle like you’ve see on the news from Belfast or Derry arcs through the air, describing a neat parabola above their fans, across the fence separating the two sets. You see it. Frozen. Silent. An age as it falls. You think it’s going to hit you and instinctively you crouch, pulling the coat across your head as a cloth barrier, but it sails past and shatters in the throng of Hammers behind you, who scatter as fire bursts upwards. The screams of children. A vision of hell.

The young feller with his Wrangler on fire alone in the midst of this insanity.  Arms aloft like some crazed preacher or dazed stunt man, he stumbles across the emptying terrace in freeze frame as those around him retreat blindly, squealing. You move. Without thinking. A rugby tackle brings his bony knees and extended palms down hard as you both bounce on the concrete steps. Your old coat  denies the fire any oxygen and you squeeze him downwards. Your pressure and the woollen vacuum snuff the blaze out. Acrid burnt cloth and hair stink neutralised by competing odours of burgers, beer and sweat as the crowd throngs. People reclaim their vantage points.

He’s scorched and screaming, as you remove his charred jacket. But he’s alright. He’s ok. No burns. No cuts. Crying and disorientated, but there’s no injuries, only a pervasive residual fear that you need to control. Hug it out of him. Everything’s grand you tell the watchers. You don’t mind the blisters on your hands or the cold that the day is challenging you with. Worst of it are the scorch marks on the lining of your old coat. You wrap it round his convulsing shoulders like it’s the beach towel you dried him with after you went swimming at Tullagh Bay that August you took her and the young feller over on holiday. That was when you knew what you’d called home could never be home again, because of the way people stared at her and him whenever they talked. The silence in cafes and the whispering as you left again. You have to let it go. The anger. It gains you nothing.

A copper leads you and him away, down the back of the terracing, through the guts of the stand and into a First Aid room. The game goes on. The two sets forget you as the shouting and roaring starts up again. A St John’s Ambulance bloke looks the two of you over. Puts a bandage on your left hand where it’s blistered. Gives you both sugary tea and a chance to sit a while. There’s a Newcastle lad flat out on his side. Unconscious. In the recovery position. He’s fainted they tell you. Let him sleep you say.

“Sure it won’t be the excitement that’s done for him,” says the St John’s bloke and you realise you don’t know the score. You’re free to go, so you ask the young feller if he wants to see the rest of the game and he shakes his head, looks at the floor with his hands clasped between his thighs. Still fearful, but he’s safe now.

A copper leads you to an exit gate. Ignored, you leave the ground and head away from the noise, into the body of the city where there’s thousands more people about their business, but none of them throwing things or calling you. You find a clothes shop. One of those boutique places, but for men. Young men like him. Pausing outside, you take his scarf and his book for safekeeping. Throw the burnt Wrangler in a bin and buy him a new one. A bigger size. Longer on the arms and at the back as he’s growing. Taller than you by half a head.  A fine specimen. You’re proud. His thanks are genuine and again you’re biting back the tears. Claiming it’s nothing. And you both realise it’s time to go.

A walk to the station. Stop for fish and chips to take out.  Eating them as you go, you grab some drink for the journey. Commentary on the radio in the beer shop calls the game a disgrace. On and off the pitch.  At the station you’re in luck. Ten minutes until the train. Earlier by an hour than you’d anticipated. Brisk walk to the platform. Pump your last ten pences in a call box to tell her… tell her what? Tell her nothing. It was a grand day, but the game was rotten. She confirms the result. Nil all. Just up on the teleprinter. Sure these English games are a waste of time you tell her. She laughs. And the pips go, so you tell her you love her and seconds later you’re on the train. There’s nobody else in the carriage. It’s warm and the cloth seats sag affectionately.

He settles down with his book and you flick through the programme. Blurred pages full of statistics you’ve no interest in. So you open a can. Take a slow drink watching the north go by as the sky darkens. Eating up the ground towards your destination. Putting distance between you and the madness and the hatred. You’ve been up twelve hours and there’s 300 miles still to go, but you’re both grand and you’re going home. Together.

You settle back, close your eyes and soon you’re dreaming of her hair spread out across the pillow and beyond.

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