The Big Match By Dominic Bell
I am giving myself a team talk, while occasionally shouting at Nate to get a move on or we'll be late. Today, I promise myself, I will not say anything inane, or obvious, or that can be interpreted as weird in any way. Nate finally appears, tracksuit over his kit, his hair sculpted á la some footballer who he goes on about regularly and who I cannot remember the name of. Whatever, he still looks twelve. We get in the car and head for the ground.
We are there in good time. Nate immediately heads over to where his team is starting to gather and within minutes is doing professional style stretches in sync with Daniel, his best mate and the apple of his mother's eye, who is in turn the apple of my eye. Not that she ever seems to realise it.
I had located Sandra, the mother in question, within seconds of arriving, but only now that the boys are safely occupied do I casually stroll towards where she is standing alone on the touchline. Like last Saturday, she is beautifully adorned in an oversize combat jacket, leggings and old DMs, the whole ensemble topped off with a pink bobble hat. She also has matching pink gloves on, as it is windy and near freezing. As usual.
She is gazing in the opposite direction. I worry that this might be on purpose. I know the details of most of her life from an inside mole (Daniel) who feeds me deep background and updates via a courier (Nate). The most important fact is that Daniel's father is not around – and nor has he been since he was three months old – and that there is currently no substitute. As Nate's mother long ago abandoned both Nate and I there is all to play for, so as to speak, though this is more like a promotion campaign than a single match, as it has been in progress since Nate and Daniel joined the team fifteen months ago. It took three months before she ceased to be ‘Daniel's mum’ and became Sandra. I am not a fast worker.
She looks round at me as I stroll past, me acting apparently oblivious, because it is not like I want to be seen as stalking her or something.
‘Hi Dave,’ she says, smiling.
‘Oh, hi Sandra! We meet again,’ I say, in what is supposed to be a causal way, but it comes out as ridiculously amazed as if she has no possible reason, or perhaps even any right to be there. Luckily I am saved by shouting from the pitch as the referee gathers the teams for the game.
‘Oh, looks like they're ready for the off,’ I remark. My voice is better this time. Almost normal.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘The sooner the better. It's freezing. I need an excuse to jump up and down.’
‘Yes,’ I say, and sort of trying to mirror her in advance, I wrap my arms around myself and jump up and down. She watches me. I stop when I realise that other people are too, one or two even pointing. And that I look stupid.
‘Better?’ she says.
I nod. Luckily the whistle blows for the off, so I tell her the game has started.
She stares at the pitch, her eyes hugely wide, her mouth open, then looks back at me. ‘Really?!’
I nod again. It is unsafe to talk. I might say anything. She must think I am an idiot.
Ella Street United are initially all over their Belvoir Avenue rivals, but soon run out of steam. I manage not to, despite an appalling start. Sandra takes pity and reboots our usual warm-up weather conversation by saying it is windy. We move on to make comments to each other about the game.
She is better at this than me, sounding as if she knows the rules properly. Though sometimes I suspect she is testing me to see how little I know, particularly with regard to the offside rule.
Occasionally, if the ball goes near one of the goals we shout ‘go on’, ‘get to it’ or ‘ooh’, just to help the atmosphere. I strongly prefer looking at her to watching the game. She makes me ensure that Nate never misses training. Not that Daniel ever does from what I remember. She is a good mum, I think, considering she works full time and must have to rush to get him to the training sessions.
It is two-nil to the Belvoir boys when the whistle blows, partly due to one of our own managing to score an own goal with a rubbish pass back to the keeper. I am very glad it was not Nate or Daniel. We both try to look grim and determined, shake our heads at each other, tell each other in true manager style that the boys have a lot of stamina, that Belvoir are losing their puff, that we are sure Ella will get it together and pull the game back.
A welcome break from the football which allows us to talk of other things. I briefly panic on seeing a blackbird and talk of changes in bird migration patterns, but luckily she takes charge quickly and we are soon on the much better subject of a teacher who persecutes and marks down our sons (according to them). We unite in our hatred of her. Her eyes light up with beautiful anger. I gesticulate, shaking my head, my voice raised. I notice people watching us, probably thinking we are having a row. It gives me a warm feeling to think we have got to this level of togetherness, at least in the eyes of others.
After a few seconds Ella Street freakishly get one in, and over excited by this fluke and the gulping of energy drinks at half time, get another five minutes later. After this, as sugar levels drop, both sides settle down to determined defence. We are content with this, which requires little attention, mainly nods and comments that do not interrupt our main discussion on the inequities of their school. This is something we always bond over, one of our favourite discussions.
Tension in the air now. Even we are fully focussed on the wild attacks being carried out by both sides with our hearts in our mouths, both goalkeepers playing to England standards. Or even above.
Then, well out of position, Nate kicks the ball towards Daniel. It catches him unawares, but bounces off him into the goal. The whistle blows, followed a second later by the final whistle and Ella Street do what they are best at, celebrating in what looks like a violent fight. Infected by the madness I pick up Sandra and whirl her around. She laughs and embraces me, kisses me. I kiss her back. In the heat of the moment I ask her out. Finally, she says rolling her eyes. Yes of course. But don't tell them. They will mock us. Yes, I say, looking over to where They are staring at us. I hurriedly disengage and move to a respectable distance. She laughs.
After taking the boys to our respective houses to clean them, we meet later for celebratory burgers.
They spend most of the time telling us again and again how they had planned and practised their move. We both pretend to believe them. In a moment when they are not listening she tells me this does not count as us going out and we should plan what to do. I am relieved to hear this. I ask her what she would like to do and she says to watch a Hull City match. I stare at her in horror, but then say that I will get tickets for next weekend. She tells me they are playing away, so it will have to be the weekend after that. OK, I say, my heart falling what I am sure will be a total lack of opportunities to talk to her in a roaring home crowd. Plus in a fortnight's time, once the boys have lost their next match, she will probably have gone off the whole idea anyway. Then she laughs.
Kidding, she says. Bring Nate round tomorrow and they can play on the Xbox while we go for a walk. I nod, relieved.
On the way home Nate asks if we will move into hers or if she and Daniel will move into ours.
He says her house is much cleaner and neater and has three bedrooms, so he would not have to share with Daniel. Taken aback, as I had been fantasising about much the same thing, I tell him we are just friends, but he looks unconvinced. He tells me it is my big chance and not to mess it up or he won't be able to go around Daniel's at all and it will be my fault. I half listen, and nod as he tells me about what happens When Parents of Footballing Children Fall in Love and It All Goes Disastrously Wrong, with especial reference to someone called Jason whose mum stopped taking him to practice at all after Callam's dad turned out to be polyamorous. But inside my head music is playing. Joyous, triumphant football music mainly.
A gripping game, despite a bad start by Dave, but good teamwork by Sandra and the boys gave him just the lift he needed to make that final effort and lift the threat of being put back on the bench. An excellent performance by all concerned.