Thursday, 23 May 2013

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Nightmare

We all walk down the corridor to their front door, friends of my Mum and Dad. I don’t know their names, not sure that it matters. Kaede and Nate are bouncing of the walls, they’ve been cooped up in the car for far too long. Happy to be free of the restraints they are loud and over-enthusiastic. Dad frowns, Mum laughs. They take this as approval and somehow get louder.

I manage to quieten them as we ring the bell, waiting for the shuffling feet from behind the door to eventually reach the lock and let us in. An old couple welcome us, possibly the same age as my folks but they seem to have given in to their age, all the trinkets and pot plants confirm it.

Everything is clean and yellow, shapes and shades of it everywhere. From the wallpaper to the dado rail, the carpet to the lampshades, the tobacco coloured fingers to the same smokers teeth. I look at those stained fingers but am still jealous. Three years a non-smoker now, and not a happy one, not even when confronted with this sight and smell.

The flat seems to be all narrow hallways and doors, wasted space and old paintings. We are ushered down an ever narrowing corridor that opens up into a living room. There is only space for a two seat sofa and an armchair, not all of our party is inside and yet we have filled the room. One whole wall is all glass, with patio doors that overlook the sea. There is no television, but who needs one when you have this view.

It is a cloudless day and the blue sky seems to melt into the sea, the only discernable join being the white horses racing towards the shore. Endless sets of them, each one bigger than the last until we reach the ninth and the cycle starts again. My brother Daniel has entered the room now, all six foot four of him, and thankfully our hosts open the doors and we spill out onto the patio.

The tiny garden has been cut into the cliff, it is lush green grass and flower beds, it seems out of place amongst the surrounding white wall of rock. The only way to tell how high up we are is to look across the bay for reference. Not strictly true as I could look over their too small white fence to judge, but I don’t. I’ve been no good with heights since Dad sat Daniel on Westminster Bridge a lifetime ago, I was sure he was going to fall in. He didn’t.

The children have been given ice lollies to quieten them, the pounding in my head starts to let up at last. Nate sits on a tiny chair near the fence, happily watching the seagulls gliding through the air. Kaede sits behind him on a wall, intent on changing the colour of her tongue from pink to blueberry blue.

She turns round to poke her tongue at us, demanding to know its colour, the sentence half finished as she falls of the wall and rolls toward her brother. In a split second I can see what is about to pass and I dive towards her, not even getting close. The chair her brother is sitting on arrests her progress, but the impact throws him forward. All sound is muted as I watch him topple over the fence that should have set off my alarm bells earlier.

I reach the fence and look over. His tiny body lays unmoving on the sand 60 feet beneath me, the drop slightly inclined, bushes and copse brush all the way down. I see all this in the half second it takes me too step over the fence, and start my slide down to him. I can see my brother in my periphery, sliding down with me, but my eyes are fixed on my son, willing him to move. The silence continues, and I pray to hear him cry. Hurt not dead that’s all I want, hurt not dead.

I reach the bottom and grab him into my arms, he doesn’t seem to have a mark on him, but he is so limp, so still. I shout at him, shout his name, I can’t hear this but I know I’m doing it because my jaw aches. His eyelids flutter and my hopes rise. I cradle him into my arms, worried I’m hurting him but the need to hold him tight is all encompassing.

My parents have run down the steps cut into the cliff and are standing the other side of a concrete sea wall. I let Daniel take him off me, and watch as he is gently passed over to Dad. I try to find a way through the wall, looking for any gap that will lead me back to my son. I am still searching when my hearing returns. My Mothers screams at first, then my Dads voice repeating the same thing, over and over.

“He’s dead, oh no, he’s dead.”

I stop breathing and sit bolt upright. My heart rate goes from 0 to 120 in a second, as I look around and see my dark bedroom through eyes filled with tears. The sobs are caught in my throat as confusion starts to release its grip on me and reality returns. My first instinct is to go check on Nate, still sleeping in his cot. My second is to send my brother a text, thanking him for jumping with me. I now know it’s a dream, but both my head and heart obviously knew that he would.

Sleep evades me for the rest of the night, but I’m not bothered, it’s a small price to pay.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Ghost of Football Past

Sitting on the tube, four stops from Finsbury Park, you are off to meet Jason for a few drinks in The Railway Tavern.

Tapping your feet and getting all bouncy now, you see fellow fans, everyone with that same smile, the same air of expectation. Everyone trying to look blasé about it, but you know they have the same knot in their stomachs, the knot that only a couple of lagers can push to one side.

No pint ever tastes better than the first one on a Saturday match day.

The sun is shining, all is good. Conversations start quietly, summer signings discussed, prospects for the season, the pros and cons of today’s opponents.

As it gets nearer to kick-off the pub fills up, the atmosphere becomes charged, the songs start.

You quickly neck your last pint, and out onto the street, joining the throng of fellow Gooners — fans of London’s Arsenal — streaming down the road, a sea of Red and White. The nearer the ground, the louder it gets.

There is a real bounce in your step now, still trying to look calm, just wanting to get in your seat and get going.

Walking past the old ground brings a wave of nostalgia and old stories. You remember watching the first game of the season against Liverpool from the toilet roof in the old North Bank. Fifty-five thousand people there that day, you were 16 and loving every minute of it. Knowing then you were a real fan, knowing that you would one day sit there reminiscing about that moment.

Now here you are, 22 years later, remembering that same moment, simultaneously sad and happy. Sad that the game has got richer and wiser, while you have not. Happy that you have now been swept along with the tide of great football, football that you have never seen the likes of since those early days. The days of Van Basten and Gullit in Euro 88, playing the type of football you never thought you would see an English club team play.

And so the journey home. Feeling flushed with a collective success, you sit alone on a train, one of 60,000 people. You can smell the beer, fried onions and puff on you. The smell of football, the smell of your heritage, a smell so familiar it makes you ache for a more innocent day.

Every year you moan. The transfer fees, the wages, the journeymen kissing badges they have no right wearing.

But on this journey home none of that matters. You are on top of the world. Your support has helped your team, your real family, win. You can’t explain it, no -one else can know what it’s like for you. In fact, you jealously guard that feeling, not wanting anyone else to share it, lest it dilutes it.

Pretending it doesn’t mean that much to you when you lose. You are a grown up now, you could never explain it to your wife or girlfriend. How could she ever expect to understand the feelings you have for 11 strangers, when you have to make an effort to talk to her Dad?

You bleed for this team, you always have. Who else knows what you were doing when Micky Thomas scored in the last minute at Anfield? Who else knows that the mates you were watching it with, West Ham fans at that, jumped up and down with you, one of them smashing his head on a chandelier? Who else other than a fellow Gooner knows how long you waited for that moment?

Who else understands that you cried like a baby when you heard David “Rocky” Rocastle had died, and yet you mocked the people that cried for Lady Di?

Who else knows you miss the old stadium? That the intellectual part of you loves the new ground and its lovely curves and ease of access, but it will never be the same as your first love, no matter how many designer clothes it wears?

Your journey home is sponsored by melancholy. You can’t help it, but the ghost of football past will always win. But you don’t care. You won, they lost, and life is good again.

Until next week, of course.

Originally published in The New York Times Aug '09