It’s been three months since they saw each other, and Gareth wonders if his father will recognise him. He pictures his mother upstairs, sitting at her dressing table, practising her face. He wonders if his father will come into the house. He thinks: if Dad comes in, Wales will lose.
Hearing his mother on the stairs, he moves from the window and settles on the couch – the gap in the curtains the only evidence he was standing there, waiting for his father’s car.
Got your phone? she asks.
Text when you’re on your way back, alright?
Yeah yeah, he says.
A car horn beeps outside: his father has arrived – and he isn’t coming in.
There’s a pause, then his mother smiles.
Well, have a good time, she says. And make sure you get something to eat. I’ve told your father, but you know what he’s like.
Gareth nods, absorbs it all. If Wales win tonight, everything will turn out okay. His mother will find a wad of cash stuffed in the walls and they won’t need to move out. But if Wales lose, the repo man – with his bulging muscles – will return and take Gareth’s bike. Or the ceiling will cave in and fall down on him while he’s watching cartoons on the couch.
Wouldn’t it be mad if you see me in the crowd on the telly? he says.
His mother grins.
I’ll keep an eye out for you, she says.
Outside, the March evening air is fresh on his cheeks.
Young man, his father says in greeting.
Alright? Gareth replies.
They drive up Caerphilly Mountain, Gareth secretly studying his father’s head. One day he’ll be able to read people’s minds. He just needs to learn to focus harder.
What you looking at? his father asks.
I think you’re going bald, Gareth says.
Wonderful, his father replies. Another thing for me to worry about.
They drive on. When they hit traffic, his father instructs Gareth to open the glove compartment, where he finds the two tickets, sacred and shiny: his first real match at a real stadium.
So what do we know about Northern Ireland? his father asks. Any predictions?
They’ve got some good defenders, Gareth says. But Wales will win. I’m gonna say . . . two-nil. Ramsey header and . . . a Gareth Bale bikey from the halfway.
His father laughs, then in a quiet voice explains that because it’s only a friendly, Ramsey and Bale have been rested and won’t be playing.
Oh right, Gareth says.
It’ll still be a good game. Just don’t get your hopes up, alright? And put those tickets back now, before you lose them.
His father refuses to pay for parking, so for twenty minutes they drive round one residential avenue after another, finally finding a spot in a street lined with trees.
Let’s just hope we can remember where we’re parked, his father says, as they walk past houses three storeys tall, with tiled porches and coloured glass in the doors.
They’re lovely houses, Gareth says.
They’d probably cost you . . . pfft . . . a million pounds? his father says.
A million quid! Gareth says. That’s insane, that is.
They walk on, Gareth taking two steps for every one of his dad’s.
Slow down, will you? I’m literally only ten.
Well, hold my hand then.
Nah, you’re alright, Gareth says.
On the high street, the air throbs with horns and whistles. Crowds with flags draped over their shoulders spill into the road, the cars slowing and honking. Outside a pub, a group of men in red T-shirts toot trumpets and trombones, and one man plays the sax and another bangs a drum. Arms aloft, the fans sing: I LOVE YOU BABY! and a woman, dressed like a daffodil, jumps up and down, her pint spilling onto the pavement.
Let’s get some grub, his father says.
They eat outside the chippy, leaning against the window. The chips are hot and moist with vinegar. Inside, a girl with a red dragon stencilled on her cheek stands beside her dad, with a burger and a can of Coke. If she looks at Gareth, Wales will win.
Enjoying the chips? his father asks.
Yeah, Gareth says. They’re lovely.
As they’re about to leave, the girl smiles through the glass.
Onwards they go now, among the stream of fans, down sneaky avenues and busy roads, onwards towards the stadium. Wearing coats and scarves and bucket hats the fans sing, Don’t take me, please don’t take me home, I just don’t want to go to work. Up above, the sky is purple black.
It’s a long walk, Gareth says.
Best way to soak up the atmosphere, his father replies.
You should have parked closer to the stadium, Gareth says. This is a bloody marathon.
Football is all about opinions, his father says. And in my opinion: you can shut up.
Gareth laughs, and the crowd shoals through the dark streets until suddenly the stadium is before them, glowing like a flying saucer. His father buys a programme and Gareth holds it proudly. In the queue, a bald security guard shouts, COATS OFF! ARMS IN THE AIR! He looks like the repo man, the man who took away his mother’s car.
Alright son? he asks, patting Gareth down. Any knives in your pockets?
As if ! Gareth replies.
Good boy, the man says, smiling. Have a good game.
Through the beeping turnstiles now, into what feels like an underground car park. Bodies hassle past, and there’s the smell of sizzling onions and hot dogs. A woman in a high-vis jacket checks their tickets and directs them up a flight of concrete steps, and then they are somehow, magically, outside again, and there it is – the pitch! It’s way different to how it looks on the telly. The grass is a giant green stage; lit so bright beneath the floodlights, it seems unreal.
Their seats are behind the goals. As the players warm up, he feels the thud of each kick in his chest and he hears the coaches’ echoing shouts. He pictures stepping onto the grass, striking a penalty, the net rippling.
When the anthem begins, they rise to their feet, and his father’s voice is deep and rumbling. Gareth has sung it in school before, but this is completely different. The anthem is massive, it fills his chest and roars out of him as if everything – Wales, the world, his whole life – depends on it. At the end, his father claps and yells, C’MON WALES. And Gareth yells it too, then bellows the chant that’s whirling around the stadium: WALES! WALES! He is screaming, he is letting something go.
The game is difficult to follow. There are no video replays, no commentators, just the players on the pitch and the sound of the crowd. For every Wales tackle, a swelling roar fills the air, and any decision against them means thousands of people howling at the referee. The crowd urge the players and the players drive the crowd, and it’s electric, and it feels out of control. The match is a blur and before he knows it, it’s half-time.
Nil-nil, his father says.
They leave their seats and head back out to the concourse. Gareth blows on his hands to warm them up. His father asks if he wants a hot chocolate, but Gareth says he needs a wee.
At the urinals, sandwiched between two men, nothing comes out. Beside him, a man sways and leans on the wall to steady himself. Gareth does up his zip and comes back to his dad.
Did you go?
Yeah, Gareth lies.
Wash your hands then.
At the sink, he sends his special energy to the players. When he was four years old, he got separated from his mum in WHSmith. Looking for the DVDs, he found a narrow blue corridor. He passed through alone. The floor was slanted and everything was so, so quiet and he realised he had entered a secret realm between this world and another. Years passed before he emerged beside his mum at the stationery. Later, at home, he tested his powers: with his hands above his head, he stood still in the corner of the living room. His father walked past and did not see him, and Gareth only returned to the world when his mother called him for his dinner.
As the team run out for the second half, Gareth closes his eyes and transmits messages: come on, he tells them. We can do this. And it seems to work – Wales play well, but then Northern Ireland start to attack, and the fans begin muttering. And in the 60th minute, when Northern Ireland score, all the air is sucked out of the stadium.
I bloody knew it, his father says.
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