I don’t really recall what my expectations were when I left Rossiter’s Hotel that July evening, coaxing Carlo’s elderly scooter back into town with a large folder protruding from under my jacket. All at once the game I had supposed could never be more than an absorbing pastime threatened to consume my whole life. Yes, I had dreamed of being a professional footballer, but now the dream was about to become reality, I probably felt terrified.
Nel Kershaw frowned at me over her spectacles. She reminded me curtly that she specialized in criminal, not civil law, however…
“However this seems all right.” She leafed through the pages of Allen Ranton’s contract a fourth time, scanning the solid-looking paragraphs. “His credentials are certainly good. Frankly, I doubt if you’ll do better, so the question is, do you want to be tied to one agent for five years, Charles? There is a get-out clause but you would incur a penalty if you used it.”
Other than Nel, I told no-one of my good fortune. Ranton had suggested I say nothing until he ‘closed the deal’, as he put it. “It’s important, Chas. Don’t even tell your mother, all right?”
For reasons I didn’t understand then (I do now), Ranton wanted to handle any press himself. Needing a reason for my barely contained agitation I told my mother Trevor Bull was picking on me again. I hoped she would swallow it without pursuing our Trev and beating my lie out of him.
By the time I next met Angela I felt calm, sure that I had my emotions under control.
“What’s the matter, Chas?”
“Yeah. You’re quivering, man!” Angela grinned. “I’m not saying it isn’t sexy, like!”
“I’ll tell you everything soon. In a few days. I promise.”
She gave me a sly look. “I think I know.” She said.
“Oh, right! What is it then?”
“Don’t worry, man, I’ll not tell.” She drew close and whispered in my ear. “Do you think you’ll get the number nine shirt?”
Once again, Angela had surprised me. When I demanded to know how she found out, she simply said: “You’s. You’re on fire tonight and only your bloody football can do that to you. You give yoursen’ away, Chas Haggerty!”
Carlo voiced his suspicions.
“So, who’s this Ranton fella, then, Chas? Why’d he want to keep the’? He didn’t start getting fresh or owt, did he?”
Jack Masters knew, of course. He stood outside the loop, ready to see my signature on the contract. When I delivered it to him at our midweek practice session he simply said “Well done.” Then he told me to get on with training.
“Start doing a bit of running, lad. A couple of miles each morning, to begin. You need to sharpen up.”
That Wednesday, I planned to visit John Hargreave. Carlo gave me two evenings’ release from pizza delivery duty each week to provide some part-time employment for his son, so, with Angie occupied ‘washing her hair’, and my friend desperately in need of an opponent to play his new Nintendo game I downed a sausage with batter and chips from ‘The Golden Chip’, before making my way to his house. John lived a mile from the town, in one of those little satellite villages huddling around a blocked shaft that had been a coal mine, once.
John’s home was of a lesser vintage than the smoky red brick terraced houses, many of whose doors shielded retired miners, a silent community that harboured pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness and diminished hope. A thin drape of smoke hung overhead and lurked in the breathing air. I could never quite get used to walking amid the stultifying silence of that strange street; to one side the cramped hovels of two-up-two-down brick, with their belching chimneys, their expressionless windows, their urgency as they strove to break the narrow chain of pavement and be free; to the other a green acre, a benignly patronizing rank of four bedroomed detached new builds rising from immaculate grass. Dividing them, the road might as well have been an ocean in depth, a battlefront in hostility.
Once in argument with John I had pointed out his own street as a metaphor for the implacable class war, evidenced by a complete absence of social interaction between those who lived on the left side of the street and those on the right. He admitted it was true.
“I agree, but I don’t think of it as a line of battle. I don’t know anyone from the other side but I do know you, and you live in a house a lot like those. And if it’s symbolism you’re after, come up on a Sunday. You’ll find our green and pleasant acre being used by kids from the other side, playing football.”
“Yeah, is that why every lamp post has a ‘No Ball Games’ sign on it?”
“They ignore it, much to my Dad’s annoyance. But kids from our side of the road could join in if they wanted.”
“Nah. They’d just want to play rugby.”
At so early an evening hour the street was quiet, which must have been the reason I noticed a midnight blue BMW purring toward me. It was travelling fast, giving me little time to catch a view of its driver, – a man in his thirties, with a close haircut and a sharp aquiline nose. He was not alone. A woman in a short red dress reclined in the passenger seat, one foot on the dashboard, her legs carelessly displayed. It was no more than a split second glimpse of someone whose face was hidden, yet it froze in my mind because – because of what? Could I know a person like that? If so, how; when, where?
John joked about it when I told him. “You’ve seen those legs before! Or was it the position that’s niggling at you? Think now, and if you remember, give me her address, man. She sounds perfect to me!”
“I know her from somewhere. Daft, I’m sure, but I do. I wish I could have seen more of her…”
“Doesn’t sound like there was much more to see.”
“I mean her face, yeah? Never mind.” I was anxious to change the subject. “What’s ‘Super Mario’ like?”
“Special, very special. Man, you should try it!”
The game was addictive. We played long into the evening, and it was dark before I made my way home. My mother had told me she would be at work, so I used my latchkey, took a Coke from the fridge, and went straight to bed. Hours of screen watching had taken their toll on my eyes. I slept like a bear in winter.
Ranton’s letter confirming Casterley Town’s interest came through our door a week later. There was to be an official signing at Rossiter’s, it told me. ‘This time you needn’t bring a pizza’. Our meeting was set for 3:00pm on a Thursday. For me, that was the day the world stood still – the space between the starter’s warning cry of ‘set’ and the snap of the gun.
As such meetings go the gathering at Rossiter’s would probably have looked unimpressive to those experienced in such things; to me it was immense. Allen Ranton greeted me in the hotel foyer, prepared me with a few brief comments, then propelled me through a heavy door into a room that proclaimed itself the ‘Dickens Lounge’. My feet were instantly silenced by deep pile. There were comfortable chairs upholstered in dark red leather, a huge marble fireplace in which burned a small, apologetic and completely unnecessary log fire, and a faux antique table, where rested an array of coffee pots, milk jugs and cups. These had already been extensively pillaged.
Of the figures who gathered around me there were one or two I recognized, many more I did not. Martin Berry cut a familiar figure in the crowd at Casterley’s home fixtures, if only because he owned the club. A compact powerhouse of a man, his highly pitched voice lent a descant to the baritone song of male conversation which paused only briefly when I entered. The source of his wealth was undetermined, although subject to a number of unflattering rumours among the fans. His ear was clearly being bent by a voice I knew emanating from a face I knew; that of Joe Pascoe, Casterley team manager, a squat warthog figure with a paucity of teeth. Of the few whose heads turned when I entered, Pascoe’s remained fixed in my direction the longest, long enough for me to detect a dark lake of hostility splashing the shores behind his grey eyes.
My encounter with these people lasted all of thirty minutes. I floated through it on my own happy cloud, because I had daydreamed about it for so long, oblivious to a reality that was quite squalid. My participation comprised a five-minute sideshow in a quagmire of networking, the substance of which had no meaning to me. I might as well have attended in my underpants for all the notice I attracted. Ranton, though, he navigated our way through the process with all the skill of a practised helmsman.
“The paperwork’s done, Chas. All you have to do is sign it. It’s for twelve months, okay? Don’t let anyone suggest a voluntary extension. They’re paying you a bit more than they normally pay at £15000 plus bonuses, so don’t discuss money with anyone. I’ll just get us through the pictures and the questions, then the rest is up to you.”
There were a couple of press reporters present. I was photographed next to a Casterley shirt, which Pascoe, wearing his best plastic smile, held up beside me. The cameraman asked: “What’s the number on the shirt, Joe?” Pascoe refused to display the back of the garment. “Is it true Chas is replacing Guy Harrison at number nine?”
“Guy’s position in the team is secure.” Pascoe rasped, still smiling.
“What position are you playin’ then, Chas?”
Ranton cut in. “Chas’s position hasn’t been finalized yet.”
“Can’t he answer for himself?”
The room fell silent. All eyes turned to me. I could feel my colour rising.
“Yeah, that’s right.” I muttered. “Like Allen says.”
I shook hands with Martin Berry and one or two other people I had never met before and was unlikely to meet again. Joe Pascoe manoeuvred his way to my side.
“I hope you’re worth what they’re investing in you, you little bastard. I want you down the ground Friday, eight o’clock. Gottit?”
Then, suddenly, it was all over. The contents of the ‘Dickens Lounge’ drifted out of its door like snow on a breeze, leaving Allen and me among the cups of half-finished coffee.
“I wonder if they want us to clear up,” Allen remarked. He took me by the shoulders. “See here, Chas, the next season is going to be tough, d’you understand? When a club’s in as bad a position as this one, results-wise and everything else wise, there are always reasons why.”
“Pascoe?” I volunteered.
“Maybe. That’s what the crowd thinks. You’ll find out as you go along and a lot depends on how you deal with it. I’ll only say, be positive, right? And in your darkest moments, lad, and there will be some, just keep in mind this is the worst club you’ll ever play for, alright?”
The worst club – the club I had followed and adored since I first learned to walk! Somewhere in the back of my head, I distinctly heard the crack of the starter’s gun.
“Took me a while to find this place.” Matthew Poultney says, “Should I take my shoes off, or something?”
“We don’t advertise it.” I tell him. “Keep them on, it’s no problem.”
“What made you choose the rural idyll?” The journalist’s eyes take in his surroundings, walls in warm colours, bright windows inviting the sun. “I always had you down as a city boy, myself.”
“Our training ground’s two miles along the road. The airport’s ten miles more, and I’ve a boat on the river. I like it here, well enough. Do you still drink whiskey? I’ve a nice peat-cured malt I think you’d like.”
He nods. “Never refuse. I don’t think I’ve ever smelt this much leather. You’ve come a long way, Chas.”
“Feet of clay,” I tell him, setting his eyes instantly alight.
“Do I smell an exclusive? Something cooking in the transfer window?”
“Nothing definite. As I said, I like it here.” I pass him a glass.
He holds it up to the afternoon sun, casting an amber reflection through the fluid. “Good colour. So why did you want to see me – I mean, it’s always nice to catch up, but…”
“You remember our first meeting?”
“Do I! You were green as the grass then. Just signed with Casterley of all places…”
“Accident of birth…”
“And you were all for diving in, a happy little coffee bean eager for the blender!”
I nod. “Consider me duly blended, yeah? I had no idea what I was up against. Pascoe, the manager, clearly hated me for reasons I didn’t understand, and that number nine, Harrison – bloody Harrison tried to injure me in training! They ignored me in the dressing room and they ignored me on the pitch. I was on the bench match after match, waiting for Pascoe to bring me on in the last ten minutes if he felt like it. By that time we’d be two, maybe three goals down and I couldn’t get a pass from anyone. No-one would feed me – they just froze me out. We were knocked out of The Cup in the first round, the team kept losing and the supporters started picking on me. It was as bad as Allen predicted and worse. Were you following us then?”
“Not match for match. I followed the scores, of course, I always do, but apart from The Cup the nationals only want copy on superstars. It was Ranton pushed me to do our interview. He was a good agent, was Allen. Retired though, last I heard.”
“He passed away last year,” I tell him.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Poultney walks closer to the window. “It’s a grand view of the river from here. What changed it for you?”
“It was Pops – Tommy Travers, the groundsman. He opened my eyes to it all. I was sitting on the terraces one day, and I’ll be honest, I was already contemplating giving up football when Tommy sat down beside me, and that was major for him because his bones were that stiff he couldn’t get back up again sometimes. He explained how neither the manager nor the team wanted me there because I threatened their little apple cart. They were old players and part-timers with some unofficial stuff on the side, doing just enough to stay in the league. The last thing most of them wanted was a goal-scorer who might bring more money into the club.”
“More money would mean fresh legs, stale legs being forced out. It’s an old story.” He nods. “I take it this Pops character was of a different opinion?”
“He wanted his new pitch, didn’t he? He was astute enough to see that mud baths like the Casterley ground had had their day. It needed a new surface – better drainage, part artificial turf, and so on. There wasn’t money in the pot to do it or any investment in the offing and he was afraid if Casterley dropped out of the League, there’d be nothing left for anyone. He told me to go over Pascoe’s head and talk to Martin.”
“The owner? Martin Berry?”
“What a memory! Although you’ll have done some homework on the way over here, won’t you? I forget these things. Anyway, He’s a nice bloke, is Martin. I took an instant liking to that guy. I went to see him and I found him on the floor of his warehouse with his sleeves rolled up, shifting crates into a panel van. I told him my problem, and he said he left the team selections to his manager, soI said maybe he shouldn’t. I also suggested he should get the team to work with me a little. He listened, but said that bit was up to me. I remember the way he put it: ‘Be Roy of the Rovers for a game. I know you can, I’ve seen you do it’. So I did.
“The very next fixture Pascoe came in spitting fire, and a lot less than pleased, but he started me at centre-forward against Parnington. He gave the captain’s band to Walters at centre-half and tried to put me upfield where I’d be starved of the ball, but I kept myself close to the halfway line. I picked out the first decent ball and ran with it. It wasn’t copybook, it was scrappy because there was no understanding between us, but we pulled out a result for the first time in the season. Four – one. The fans liked me better after that.”
“I remember that first goal of yours. It was a fantastic solo effort.”
“One of three that afternoon. My first league hat-trick. You were there?”
“I saw the footage.” He cocks an eyebrow at me and tosses his whiskey down his throat. “When are you going to tell me why I’m here?”
I pick up the whiskey bottle. “Have another?” I say.
Wait! Let’s go back a bit. I’ve told you the story of how my career began that afternoon in Rossiter’s Hotel. Without disguising anything, I’ve told you how hard it was for me to survive in those first weeks as a professional footballer, but I haven’t said anything about the effect my turn of fortune had on my friends or my home life, and I shouldn’t let that slip by.
Casterley began climbing up the league table, I hit goal-scoring form, and friends and enemies gravitated to me in equal measure; not the kind of friends I could count upon to guide me through a crisis, though, nor the kind of enemies who could see any further than their last drink. I liked pubs; I am tempted to suggest that at eighteen-nineteen years old most males of my species like pubs, yet I found it wiser to avoid them. After a good game my back could be exposed to slaps of appreciation from the moment I entered a bar, followed inevitably by an expectation that I would buy everybody a ‘round’. Following a bad game a week later I could enter the same booze palace under a thundercloud of muted criticism, knowing that someone would voice their disappointment out loud, complete with obscenities, before the evening ended.
Abstinence then: not a difficult choice for me. I was assiduous in my training and an evening beer didn’t help a morning run. But my real friends liked to go out drinking, they liked the pubs in our little town and trouble tended to erupt when I came along, so I was not always welcome. Jonna ceased to feel comfortable with me the day I started playing for the juniors, but we found some common ground for a season. When he learned I had a contract with the senior team his jealousy turned from green to black. He and Sarah very soon came to prefer each other’s company to mine.
By and large, I didn’t mind. I lamented it a little perhaps, but I accepted. The wedge between us was driven deeper with every match I played. Meanwhile, John Hargreave – Greavesie – who did not drink, had replaced Jonna as my staunchest ally, while I was spending more and more of my free time with Angela, who was not fond of drinking either. She made a disgraceful drunk when she tried to conform, obliging me to end many a date keeping her long hair out of the way as she wretched.
Angie and I were in our own world that winter; if not truly lovers then at least close friends, living in each other’s pockets, reading each other’s minds, generally setting about biblical issues according to the best teenage traditions.
There was a night in the depths of winter in that very special year when snow was falling, and we sought shelter as we often did in the warmth of my home. The house was silent, as it would usually be when my mother was at work, so we undressed each other and slipped into my bed, confident in the knowledge that she would be working for hours yet. Sex with Angie was a thing of secrets, of laughter that was muffled and filled with mystery, words whispered that could not be said aloud. Oneness might be minutes or an hour, a reverie ruptured by a raucous joke, or protracted in warm union for a dangerous time. Such it was that night; we were together in the bed’s embrace, and a cold wind against the window bade us stay.
At last I disentangled myself because I must, and made naked for the bathroom, leaving Angie half asleep. I opened the door onto the landing, groping for the light. I switched it on, at which precise moment the door to my mother’s bedroom also swung open. Framed within it, wearing as little or as much as I, stood a large male figure.
Mackenzie Crabtree’s face froze in horror, then he emitted the nearest thing I have ever heard to a male scream.
© Frederick Anderson 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.