Dark short story competition - Winner

Christine Griffin

Football Crazy
Dark short story competition


Christine has been writing poetry and prose for many years and is widely published both nationally and internationally. She has performed her work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival and the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and pre-pandemic she regularly read on local radio. She is delighted that her story has been chosen as a winner.

Football Crazy By Christine Griffin

I remember that Friday particularly. I’d set the table and buttered the bread ready for when mum got in. I’m allowed to do that, but she always says to wait until she gets in before putting the kettle on. I’d even done some of my homework, which she’d be pleased about. When I heard her key, I felt that happy flutter in my stomach which I always get when I know she’s home safely.
‘Hello, Sam. How was school?’ She sounded different somehow and when I looked I saw that she was smiling. She hadn’t looked this happy for ages. It made me feel good and I went over and hugged her.
‘School was fine.’ Is everything ok, mum?’
‘I’ve got a surprise for you, ‘she said. ‘We’re going to town tomorrow and I’m going to get you that football strip you wanted. My treat ‘cos you’ve been so good, looking after me and everything.’
I felt a huge bubble of excitement building up inside me. I’d wanted that strip so much, but mum said she was having trouble making ends meet since dad left and it didn’t seem right to keep asking her so I’d kept quiet.
‘But what about what you said – you know about making ends meet.’ I held my breath, hoping she wouldn’t change her mind.
She took her coat off and fluffed up her hair.
‘Well, we can afford it, because, guess what - I’ve had a promotion. From next week, I’m chief orderer in the dried goods section. Isn’t that great?’
I couldn’t have felt more excited. Mum was smiling again, the supermarket bosses thought she was good enough for promotion and best of all I was getting the football strip. We had our tea and watched The One Show together and then I read my football annual until I had to go to bed, even though I knew I’d never be able to sleep. For the first time since dad left, I was smiling too.

I wore that strip whenever I could. I’d rush straight in from school, get changed into it and then go to the park to meet the other kids. I wore it all weekend and one night I even slept in the top. Football’s my best thing at school and I want to be a famous footballer when I grow up. My teacher said my ball control’s good for a ten year old and I should aim high.
So of course I was wearing it the first day I met Graham.
‘I’ve got a friend coming for tea tomorrow,’ mum said a few weeks later. ‘His name’s Graham. He works at the supermarket and he likes football too.’
‘I didn’t know you had a friend called Graham.’
‘Well, I have, ‘she said. ‘He’s nice and he’s looking forward to meeting you.’
I wasn’t so sure about it though. I know Sally, Mum’s best friend, and I like her. Every time Sally comes round she brings three cream cakes and she always lets me choose first.  But Graham. For some reason, even thinking about him made me feel a bit funny. I remember I didn’t want to watch Dr Who that night even though it’s my favourite programme.
When he came the next day, he was wearing a Man U top and he brought me some football stickers.
‘Nice to meet you, Sam,’ he said. ‘Your mum says you’re a great footballer.’
‘I want to be when I grow up,’ I said. Then I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I started sorting through the stickers. I was pleased ‘cos there were loads I hadn’t got.
He and mum chatted away during tea, but even though it was my favourite - sausage and chips, I couldn’t finish all mine and asked to be excused to go and watch telly.
‘Graham liked you,’ mum said the next day. She paused. ‘Did you like him?’
‘He was ok,’ I said, ‘but I like it better when it’s just us for tea.’
‘I know, love,’ she said, ‘but it’s good for me to have other friends as well.’
It wasn’t long before Graham was round most nights. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. He was a nice man and he made mum smile. She’d even started wearing lipstick again. I just preferred it on our own.
I feel bad now for thinking that, because what happened next was all my fault. I shouldn’t have done it. There’s this girl at school called Laura. She thinks she’s my girlfriend, but she’s not. Anyway this one day, I told her about Graham and said it was better before he came. She said her mum had had a new boyfriend but she’d got rid of him.
‘You have to wait for a full moon and then say this backwards three times. It worked for me ‘cos they split up two days later.’ And she handed me a scruffy piece of paper with some foreign looking words on it.
I put the paper in my chest of drawers and didn’t do anything for ages, but then there came the night when Graham didn’t go home. He stayed in Mum’s room all night and when I came down in the morning he was making tea. He asked me if I wanted toast. He didn’t know I always have cereal.
Well, I could put up with him coming to tea and things but I didn’t want him living in our house like another dad or something. I decided to try the magic chant. Eight days later with the full moon shining into my bedroom I got out the bit of paper and said the words.
The next morning though he was there in the kitchen as normal. He’d put my cereal out and was about to go upstairs with mum’s tea when he stopped.
‘Hey, Sam,’ he said. ‘How’d you like to come to the big match on Saturday? I’ve got tickets. Your mum’ll come too. And afterwards we’ll all go for a burger. What do you say?’
I felt a big lump in my throat and the words wouldn’t come out. I could only nod. The Match. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I’d never been to a proper match in my life. I could wear my kit. I couldn’t wait to tell the other kids.
It was later at school that I thought more about it. What if he’d gone by then? Laura said the chant worked quickly. What could I do? At school she said there was no way you could undo it once you’d said it. I crossed my fingers and said the chant forwards this time even though Laura said it was a waste of breath.
By the time Saturday came Graham was still around. After lunch we set off for the ground. Inside it was all shouting and laughing and lots of people knew Graham and kept slapping him on the back saying ‘Who’s this young man then?’ about me.
‘This is my mate, Sam,’ he said. ‘He’s football crazy.’
The funny thing was that when he said that I felt really proud. There was me, mum and Graham like a proper family. I couldn’t wait for the match to start and I forgot all about the magic chant for the first time in days. The crowd were shouting and singing and I joined in with them. I realised that I was having a great time – the best time I’d had for months.
Everyone said afterwards that there was no way they could have stopped it. They had this enquiry and they said it was something to do with faulty infrastructure. One minute we were all on our feet cheering our team on and the next minute, there was a loud crack and the stairway next to Graham collapsed and his seat simply fell into the hole. Some other people’s seats did too, but not mine and mum’s. It was awful and everyone started to cry and shout. Mum was shouting ‘Graham, Graham’ over and over but he couldn’t hear her.
For a long time after that I was sick and I couldn’t go to school. The doctor said I was suffering from shock and I had to see a lady who talked to me about it. I told her that it was all my fault.
‘I didn’t want him to die,’ I told the lady. ‘I only wanted things to be like they were before.’ I felt my throat swell up. I didn’t want to cry but couldn’t stop myself. ‘I really wish he was back again. Me and mum, well he was nice to us. Now she’s sad all over again and there’s nothing I can do to put it right.’
She didn’t believe me though, I could tell. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she said. ‘It was an accident. You mustn’t blame yourself.’ She said to be extra nice to mum as well and things would get better with time.

I never wore the football strip after that. There’s a kid down our road who always wanted one so I gave it to him.  I gave him the stickers as well and I accidentally on purpose left my football in the park. I never wanted to see any of that stuff again. When I go to school, I go the long way round so as I don’t have to go near the football ground. Laura never speaks to me now. She’s got a new boyfriend – not that I ever was her boyfriend in the first place.
 I still get home before mum to get the tea ready, exactly like it used to be. I suppose the lady was right in a way. Things have got better with time. Mum’s not crying in her room at night. But she never comes home smiling like she did that day she got promoted. We don’t watch The One Show either like we used to. And she hasn’t even noticed I don’t wear my football kit any more.

Judges Comments

Football Crazy, the winner of WM's Dark Tales competition, is notable for the way its author Christine Griffin has crafted it so that each element within the story adds an uncanny, ambiguous layer to its unsettling ambience.

There's the narrative voice: that of ten-year old Sam, who sees and interprets the story's events in a way that's appropriate for their age group, and the imaginative space between what Sam says and how the adult reader will interpret it. There's the escalation of childhood resentment at the arrival of new boyfriend Graham into ill-wishing, and the possibility that the spell cast in spite might actually have worked, and that what happened to Graham was more than an accident. There's the steady, accumulative escalation from ordinariness to tragedy, and the terrible shadow cast over the the lives of Sam and his mother in the aftermath of the life-changing event. There's the knowledge that Sam will go on believing that what happened was his fault.

All of these elements combine to great effect in a story where the darkness is conveyed with a very sure hand. Instead of deploying dramatic atmospherics, Christine Griffin has set her story in an everyday world and used a really convincing child's voice in a way that makes it plain that the most familiar things hold the greatest potential to turn into darkness. Writing in a way that draws attention to her story and lets the reader understand the terror, sorrow and guilt between its lines, Christine has created an impressive piece of writing and an unsettling, very worthy winner.


Runner up: Shadowman, Deborah Hugill, Northallerton, Yorkshire
Also shortlisted in WM’s Dark Short Story Competition were: Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambs; Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire; Dominic Bell, Hull; Julie Bissel, Sible Hedingham, Essex; Steve Burford, Malvern Linc, Worcs; Millie Poplars, London; Michael Callaghan, Glasgow