A few drivers had slowed to look up at the side of the coach as it circled the roundabout. Along one stretch of its window, near the back, three pairs of white buttocks were pressed against the glass like a row of film-packed chicken breasts. As the coach lurched off the roundabout one of these pairs of buttocks briefly disappeared, before returning emphatically to its place alongside the others.
Inside the coach Tom sat alone beside his kitbag, looking across the aisle at the hysterical gurning faces of the three mooners. The middle one had dropped his trousers to his ankles, his cock bobbing stupidly with the motion of the vehicle as it overtook a caravan onto the dual carriageway. Tom turned away, embarrassed, glad that the short journey was nearly over.
The coach was on its way to a budget hotel on the outskirts of town, an away-match policy now insisted upon by the chairman in the aftermath of the opening weekend of the season. Tom had not been at the club then. He had signed a few weeks later, shortly after being let go by his boyhood club in a brief and tearful meeting with the new manager. The memory of that afternoon was still difficult to think about. All of the second-year apprentices lined up in the corridor among the new man’s cardboard boxes and whiteboards; the office and its stale stink of the old manager’s cigarettes. Tom had stood by the door as the manager perched on his desk, which was empty except for a scribbled piece of paper and a scratched glass case with a blue cap inside it.
‘You’re a good lad, Tommy. Your parents should be proud of you. No question you’ll find a club. You’re going to be some player, when you grow into yourself.’
Tom found out afterwards that he’d said the exact same thing to all of them, except the two he’d kept on. Eight lads he had progressed through all the youth levels with, all hoping now for another club to phone them as they thumbed through the jobs pages or took on work at the recruitment agency, the shopping centre, the multiplex, waiting to grow into themselves. Unlike most of them, though, Tom did find a club. A small town down south, near the coast. The chairman phoned up himself, one morning, and arranged for him to stay in a hotel for the night so that he could come down and talk to them.
‘Who?’ his sister had said when he told his family. ‘League what?’
‘Two. They came up from the Blue Square last year. Chairman says they’ve got some money behind them.’
His sister told him well done and then went upstairs to ring her friends and tell them the news.
The three backsides had returned to their seats. They were still laughing. One of them, scanning round to see if anybody was still watching them, caught Tom’s eye, and Tom gave him a dumb grin before turning to look out of the window. Cars moved past them in the other lane. Out of some, the blue-and-yellow scarf of that day’s opposition flapped and spanked against back windows, and one or two drivers honked their horns as they overtook the coach.
The match had begun promisingly. It was his first start for the team, and the sick cramping feeling of the changing room soon left him as he became quickly involved in the game. In one early muscular exchange, as possession swapped repeatedly from one side to the other, the ball spilled out to him on the wing and he ran instantly at the fullback, who, stumbling, tripped, ballooning the ball out over their falling bodies for a corner. A short way into the half, however, a bungle between the two central defenders – who were sat now in the seats in front of Tom watching Total Wipeout on a laptop – resulted in a goal for the home side. After that, the confidence went from the team. They lost 3–1. In the miserable sweaty fug of the changing room afterwards the manager called them a bunch of soft fucking faggots, and when one of the younger players giggled, the manager stepped forwards and kicked him in the leg.
The coach had left the dual carriageway and was now moving slowly down a superstore-lined arterial road, coming to a halt at traffic lights. A group of home supporters stood outside a pub, smoking. It took a moment for any of them to notice the coach, and when one of them did he seemed unsure what to do, watching it anxiously until a couple of the others followed his stare and started immediately into a frenzy of hand gestures. At his old club, the coach had tinted windows – even the reserve-team coach. In this league, though, the supporters were always in your face. They came up to you in the street and at the supermarket, and inside the small, tight, windswept grounds where they stood grimacing in huddles along the terracing, individual faces and voices were already recognizable to him. The lights changed, and he gave a final glance at the group, rhythmically fist-pumping now in an ecstasy of abuse as the coach began to pull away in the direction of the hotel.
He was rooming with Chris Balbriggan – a situation Balbriggan seemed none too happy with, judging by the way he threw his bag onto the bed by the window, turned the television on too loud and pounded gruntingly at the window for a couple of minutes before accepting finally that it was not designed to open. He stayed there staring out of it instead, occasionally giving a small shake of his head, at his misfortune, or at the flat-roofed view of the neighbouring retail estate. Balbriggan, Yates and Frank Foley, the goalkeeper, were no longer allowed to stay with one another, in any combination, and had all been paired with younger or newer members of the squad.
Although they were banned from room-sharing, the manager did not seem to mind those three keeping company on the nights out after matches. In fact, they were the players that the manager himself kept to, and they formed a boisterous circle near the bar counter of the first place the team went into, while the other players piled into a large sticky red booth or went in pairs around the floor jokingly strong-arming their way into groups of girls.
There was nowhere left to sit in the booth so Tom stood on the outside with the other young players – most of whom had come through the youth team and stuck together – smiling and gravely trying to hear what was being said above the music. Sat immediately below him, Gavin Easter, the right back, was telling a story. Tom kept his eyes on the top of his head, trying, in case anybody should glance at him, to look coolly amused. He could see the raw greased scalp through Easter’s stiff clumping hair. He couldn’t hear a word. When the story was finished, and the others laughed, Easter leaned back, obviously unaware of Tom stood right behind him because when his shoulder touched Tom’s thigh he twisted to look up, and smiled. In a voice that was quiet enough it was probably meant just for him, he said: ‘Christ, Tom, if I’d got that close to their lad today maybe we wouldn’t have got thumped so badly.’ In that moment, Tom felt so grateful that he was almost moved to grip him by the shoulder and say something funny in reply.
He went to the toilet instead. On his way back, in order to avoid being bought a drink, he moved to the bar to buy one for himself. He did not notice, until he got served, that he was wedged up against the back of Frank Foley. Foley was talking to a tall girl with smooth pale shoulders, stood beside him, and each time he leaned in to speak to her his large backside butted against Tom’s waist.
The girl was frowning.
There was another press of the backside and she nodded, looking out at the room briefly, before turning back to Foley.
‘Sorry, love, I’ve never heard of you.’
She moved to collect three tall glasses of dark liquid and jostled her way out from the bar. Foley stayed where he was, with one arm rested on the counter, looking at his pint. When Tom got out from the bar he was still there, unmoving, the same expression on his face as 2,000 other people had already seen three times earlier that day.
Balbriggan did not come back to the room all night, as far as Tom was aware. Tom knew that Balbriggan had returned to the hotel from the nightclub they’d ended up at because he was among the mob in the cafe-bar singing and wrestling and drinking from the bottle of rum that somebody had taken from behind the mangled bar shutters. Tom stayed for about half an hour before going up to bed. He fell asleep immediately, and deeply, before waking just after four with a stiffness in both legs and his face damp with sweat. From the flat glare of a security light outside the window he could see the kitbag still on top of the other bed. He stared at it for a while as he thought back on the day, the match, the night – and a familiar unease came over him that made him close his eyes. His eyelids felt heavy, gummy with perspiration. He became aware of a faint sobbing noise out in the corridor. He kept his eyes closed, trying to shut it out – the noise, the uneasy feeling, the security light.
What got him out of bed in the end was not so much care or curiosity but the creeping anxious thought that if he stayed there listening for much longer then he might begin to cry himself.
He saw immediately where the noise was coming from. At the end of the corridor, in a leggy heap against the wall, beside a fire extinguisher, a young girl was slumped forward with her forehead resting against her knee. He moved towards her. There was the smell of vomit, and a dark tidemark on her shin and calf where it had clung and spiralled down her leg like a chocolate fountain. She was still sobbing quietly but did not look up at him as he kneeled in front of her. She did not respond even as he positioned one arm under her armpits, the other under the tacky back of one knee, then the other, and lifted her up. In the brightness of the corridor lighting, with her eye make-up bleeding and a small pink rash on one of her temples, she looked to him very young, younger even than his sister.
‘It’s OK,’ he whispered. ‘It’s OK.’
He carried her into the room and kicked Balbriggan’s bag off the bed before laying her down and gently arranging the covers over her.
She was still asleep in the exact same position when Balbriggan came into the room when it was light outside. He leaned over Tom’s bed gigglingly and slapped him on the cheeks a few times until he was fully awake. As Balbriggan left the room, looking at the girl and smirking, an unstoppable sensation of pride flared briefly inside Tom, that turned almost immediately to guilt and stayed with him as he got up, showered and woke the girl – who moved silently into the bathroom to wash her face and leg before letting herself out into the corridor.
When he got to the ground floor to join the squad, she was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t ask after her, and he didn’t say anything about what had happened to any of the others. He kept to himself – as they filed out of the hotel to the mournful sound of lobby music and the tired, unhappy glances of reception staff – noticing, as he went through the doors, the milky sap in the yucca plant, bent and lolling next to the entrance where the two central defenders had struggled about on top of each other the night before.
The following Saturday he was on the bench. Late in the match, with the team 2–0 down, the manager sent him on, and in his eagerness to show his worth, Tom raced into a tackle on the fullback that left him with a badly bruised foot. The injury kept him out of the next two matches. By the time the foot had healed, the manager – with the team in the relegation zone two months into the season – had brought in three loan players, one of them an out-and-out right-winger, the same side as Tom. On the afternoon of Tom’s return to training, the manager approached him during the warm-down to say that he would not be in the next away-match squad.
He spent the evening of the match in his digs, occasionally checking the score on his laptop. He watched television, spoke briefly on the phone to his family and ate a takeaway, a pizza. His dad wanted to come down and help him find a flat of his own to rent. It was getting silly now, his dad said. When Tom signed, the chairman told them that the club would help with finding a place for him, and in the meantime the chairman had one or two small flats of his own that new players could stay in until they got fixed up. As yet, nobody had spoken to him about moving and, as he told his dad on the phone, this didn’t feel like the right time to go to the manager asking for help. His dad came down the following week. He had arranged a couple of days off work. They went for a drink, and a meal, and the next day found a studio flat in a new apartment block near the town centre where, they agreed, he would be more in the thick of things. He was proud of him, his dad said. He was doing well, adjusting, considering his age. They went to a match together, which ended in the first victory of the season. They sat in the main stand. Tom didn’t tell him that he had bought their tickets. His dad said that the way this manager liked to play didn’t suit his game; it was big-man hoofball and he would need to be patient, roll his sleeves up.
After his dad left, and until the new place was ready, he carried on as before: driving to the training ground in the morning, returning to his digs in the late afternoon. A few times after training and the canteen he went with the other players to the pub across the road where they filled the hours with pool and drinking games and the afternoon races; or sometimes he would drive the short distance to the coast, to one or another of the small resorts there, and walk along the seafronts and beaches. On one of these afternoons there were three boys of about his own age sitting on a bench along a promenade, who stopped their conversation to look up at him as he walked past. When he was a short way further on one of them shouted something, but it got lost in the wind and the movement of the ocean.
Following an especially cheerless defeat the manager called them all in for training the next morning, even though this would normally be a rest day. He was in an unusually threatening mood. In bitter silence they strained and hobbled for lap after lap around the pitches until he was done with them. As the squad began dragging back to the changing rooms, Tom asked the reserve goalkeeper, Hoyle, if he fancied staying behind to practise a few crosses. It wasn’t to impress the manager – even though that was of course what the other players would think – but because of the guilty, lonely feeling he had been left with since his dad left. Be patient. Roll your sleeves up. Besides which, the manager always strode away immediately on calling an end to the session, still in his tracksuit, to go and see to his van-hire company.
They practised crossing and catching together for about half an hour, until Hoyle said he was going in. Tom told him he might stay out a bit longer, practise a few drills. Hoyle laughed. ‘You’re not in the Premiership now, mate. That lot will be in the pub in ten minutes.’
He spaced out half a dozen cones along the right-hand side of the pitch and emptied a bag of balls by the cone furthest from the goal. Then he repeated a shuttle: dribbling around each cone until he reached the dead-ball line, looked up and swung a cross in, aiming each time for the same spot at the near post. He did this until all of the balls were scattered over the neighbouring pitch, where the groundsman had been driving up and down, mowing the grass.
This groundsman now got off his mower and started to jog about, fetching and kicking the balls back to him. Tom, embarrassed, ran to collect the balls himself, but as he got closer he saw that the groundsman was in fact enjoying himself, smiling, and kicking each ball with deliberate aim towards the goal. He was still at it when Tom reached the join of the two pitches, where he stood and watched him kick the rest of the balls. When they were all returned, many of them into the net, the man looked up at him.
‘Don’t suppose you want to try a few penalties against me, do you?’
He was the younger of the two groundsmen, probably in his early twenties – the older one was in charge of the stadium pitch – and as Tom fired balls at him from the penalty spot he began to wonder if he had been a footballer himself. He was agile, even in his heavy boots and canvas trousers, gleefully diving and saving three of the penalties with the leathery palms of his gardening gloves. Maybe he had been with the club’s youth team; one of those who didn’t make the cut. When the balls were finished, Tom walked towards him.
‘You’re good, you know.’
The man was sweating, and wiped a long muddy smear over his broad forehead with the back of a glove. ‘Obviously not been taking tips off you lot then, have I?’
He grinned, then started walking back to his mower, as Tom collected the balls and the cones and went to change.
The other players, including Hoyle, had all left, so he took his time showering and changing, enjoying the quiet echo of his studs on the concrete floor and the still-steamy warmth of the shower room, smiling occasionally at the thought of that impromptu penalty session. Afterwards, as he gathered his things, he stared ahead at the pool of shower water struggling around the drain. The thought of driving, of empty windswept beaches, of his bare room in the chairman’s flat – his kitbag suddenly felt like a heavy weight in his hand and he sat down, watching as the last of the water eddied and choked down the hole.
He came out onto the pitches and listened for the sound of the mower, but all he could hear was the noise of cars in the distance beyond the fencing and scrubland. On the other side of the four pitches from the road was the small graffitied outbuilding where the groundskeeping equipment was kept, and he made towards this now, trying to ignore the exposed, self-conscious sensation as he walked across the empty expanse of reeking cut grass.
He could see the man through the doorway, carefully pouring the last of one pot of white paint into another on top of a trestle table. Before Tom reached the building, he looked round in surprise and, Tom thought, a little amusement.
‘What, more penalties?’
The man looked down again and shook the last of the paint into the pot. Tom stood in the doorway. He knew he should say something but he didn’t know what that should be. The man did not seem bothered that he was standing there in his doorway watching him work. On the walls, among mounted rakes and shelves of canisters and paint and sprinklers, there were old team posters and a long dirty club scarf that had been nailed up, flecked with paint. Somehow the sight of these things filled Tom with a faint sadness. He watched the man press lids onto the paint pots and move towards the dustbin by the door with the empty pot.
He was about to open the dustbin when Tom reached forward nervously to clasp him on the arm. The man looked at him. Tom let his hand fall to his side and looked down – ashamed, unsure what to say – at the paint pot still in the man’s hand, his heavy boots, and his own trainers, now stained with green. He was conscious of how clean he was this close up to the man’s work clothes, marked with mud, grass, paint. Tom dared not look up. He listened to the dim thrum of the road. After a few seconds the man turned and Tom watched his back as he moved away, hearing then the unbearable clunk of the paint pot being put down onto the table.
Tom turned to look out of the doorway at the wide abandoned field and he felt the warmth of the man against him. The slow, gradual press of his hands on Tom’s sides. Tom stepped forward, pulling himself gently away. Then he turned and looked right at him, at his large doleful face, and he was filled with a sudden glorious sense of risk as the man stood there, waiting for him.
The man was in some pain at first. Tom stopped, not knowing what to do. This had happened the other time, a couple of years ago – neither of them then had been sure how to go on and so they hadn’t, trying instead other things, frustrated.
After a moment though, of calmly guiding Tom’s hand and then moving it aside, the man indicated for him to continue.
Later, he would remember the smell of paint, and petrol, in the man’s hair; the grass cuttings caught there, gradually working themselves loose.
There was no training the next morning because of the weekend’s match, so he spent the day moving into his new flat. There was not a lot to move. By midday, he had driven all of his things over from the other place and put them in: his clothes, his stereo, his family’s old pots and pans, his posters of his boyhood club. He spent the afternoon arranging these things, with a growing sick jittery sense of how permanent it felt. The thought of the future filled him with anxiety as he moved about the small clean flat and folded his clothes into the wardrobe, sorted the television reception, tacked his posters onto the bedroom walls, then removed them and put them up in the corridor.
He needed to phone his dad and tell him he was in, but he couldn’t.
On the afternoon of Saturday’s match he went to the players’ bar with the other uninvolved members of the first-team squad. He was the only player to watch the match. He stepped out of the bar into the tiny walled-off area at the top of the main stand and sat drinking alone, following absently as the team laboured to a one-all draw, the muffled noise through the glass behind him of Chris Yates and Frank Foley arguing, on and off, all through the match.
He had forgotten to check his route from the flat before he left and got lost around the edge of town, arriving at the training ground over half an hour late. The squad had already begun a keep-ball routine when the manager, his arms folded, feet planted apart, saw him running towards them.
‘Three full circuits, dickhead. Go.’
He started immediately into a fast pace, running in the other direction from the outbuilding, and by the time he had been going only a few minutes, and he heard distantly behind him the sound of the mower starting up, his breath was already coming thickly and his heart thumping. He felt his legs and his chest tighten as he ran faster still – without caring how it would look to the manager and the players – not allowing himself to look round until he had reached the turn at the road side of the pitches.
He saw the small figure on top of the mower as it moved slowly down the side of the furthest pitch and, even from that distance, he knew that it was the other groundsman.
He completed the three circuits and rejoined the others, careful to keep his head down and join fiercely into the training routine, in case any of them might look at his face.
He trained on each of the following days with an intensity that caused him, by the end of the week, to be the object of frequent bruising challenges, all of which went overlooked by the manager and his assistant, surprised and pleased as they were at the sudden unexpected competitiveness brought about by their coaching. His relations with the other players were not helped either by his insistence on staying behind after the session to train alone, sprinting and sweating, watching, worrying, constantly wondering why – had the two groundsmen swapped roles, or was it something else? The sour smell of the cut grass, as he limped cramping back to the changing rooms, was almost overpowering.
After two weeks of furious training the manager called him into his office.
‘Son, this is what I’d wanted to see when I signed you.’
He was being put back in the first-team squad, the manager told him smugly.
On Tuesday night he was on the bench for a home match. He spent all of it warming up along the touchline, running up and down the side of the pitch, trying to ignore the occasional shouts from the bored, unhappy supporters in the main stand.
Even as the match came towards the end of injury time, and he had not been brought on, he continued to stretch and pace along the tidy lush fringe until, as one fan had already pointed out to him, he was more tired than he had been at the end of the two matches he’d played.
And then, one morning later that week during a chest-control routine, there he was – leaving the outbuilding as though that was where he had been this whole time. Tom tried not to look. He concentrated on the drills, sprinting, jumping, heading, attempting to distract himself from the hollow racing sensation in his stomach that grew each time there was an interval of quiet from the steady hum of the mower. At the end of the session he came in with the others. He showered, turning the knob to its coldest until he was nearly unable to breathe.
The next day he continued to look away. Only during the runs, when they jogged in a long column, would he allow himself to watch him. And it was at these times that he would see him looking, as if at the whole squad, from where he sat on the mower or rolled crisp, shocking-white lines onto the grass.
The rest of the squad had showered and changed, but Tom stayed sitting in his towel on the splintered bench until they had all left. Even though he had stopped training alone, nobody waited for him any more or asked if he was coming to the canteen or the pub. He sat there for some time before he put his clothes on, then left the room, stepped into the cold prefab corridor, and began walking to the car park.
He got into his car, which was parked to one side where the gravel surface dipped slightly towards nettle bushes and a low dead tree, and waited.
The man was one of the last to leave. The assistant manager, the physio, some of the players and the canteen staff had all got into their cars and driven off while Tom sat there.
He felt his blood throbbing against the headrest as he observed him in his rear-view mirror, coming up the path, calmly approaching the blue car parked on its own in the middle of the car park. He got in and – Tom could just make out his movements through the windscreen – adjusted his radio or something on the dashboard for a moment before starting the engine and slowly pulling away.
The team won another match, away, resoundingly. Tom did not play. His dad called him afterwards and said that he wanted to come down and see him, or for Tom to come and spend a few days at home. Tom lied and told him that neither would be possible, because the manager was making them do extra, and longer, training sessions. His dad told him again to be patient and keep his sleeves rolled up, that his chance would come, eventually.
One week on from the reappearance of the groundsman, Tom was sitting in the canteen, surrounded by the smell of deodorant and soft exhausted food, at the long central table around which the squad were athletically devouring jacket potatoes, baked beans, chips, chilli con carnes. He was on the bench at one end of the table, facing away from the entrance, and so did not at first see the groundsman coming in. Only when he had come past and stood at the hot grubby glass of the display cabinet did Tom spot him. He was waiting for the server to come back through from the kitchen. Tom watched the back of his head anxiously as he looked down at the cracked empty dishes and the remaining jacket potatoes. Only when he took his plate of potato and beans and walked, without looking over, to an empty table on the other side of the room did Tom notice Balbriggan, sat opposite him, following the man’s movement. Tom went still with fear when he saw the small smile on Balbriggan’s face as he nudged Foley on the arm, nodding in the direction of the groundsman.
Foley looked around, baffled, not sure what he was supposed to be seeing.
‘You know what he is, that guy?’ Balbriggan was staring across the room, his small stupid eyes proud, gleeful.
‘Him – the new groundsman.’
Tom looked over now, too, to where the man sat by a window eating slowly and alone, his bright immaculate pitches stretching away through the window beyond him.
Foley frowned briefly, confused, as Balbriggan whispered into his ear, before turning back to what was left of his chilli con carne.
Tom sat in his car with the radio on low as the other vehicles departed one by one until only a few remained.
Balbriggan had continued talking to Foley for some time after they turned their attention away from the groundsman. He complained about the grass, that it was too long, that it should be a fucking rugby pitch. Tom had sat there listening to them as anger, and pity, raged inside him, making him want to stand up and damage something, to damage Balbriggan, to pick up his plate and smash it on the top of Balbriggan’s dense tanned head. He stayed there with his meal half finished until those two and a few of the other players had left the canteen. The man must have been aware of him. He wondered if he was aware too of what the players said about him. Tom looked across only once. He was still eating, his head bent towards his food; the wide, open face difficult to read. Tom had felt again that same faint sadness as when he’d watched him press in paint-pot lids on the table in front of the old club scarf. He stood up, walked over to put his tray onto the stacking tower by the door and left.
The manager was leaning on his sunroof, talking into his phone. Tom could not fully hear what he was saying but he made out ‘board’ and ‘spastic’ before the manager flipped the phone shut and got into his car to leave. When the sound of the engine had died down the lane and the car park was again in silence, Tom got out. Quickly, looking around him, he walked towards the blue car. He stopped for a few seconds in front of it, looking through the windscreen at the few scattered CDs and payslip envelope on the mucky passenger seat, before stepping forward and pulling out one of the windscreen wipers. He checked over his shoulder, then placed a piece of paper onto the glass and let the wiper retract to pin it in place. Only one word had been written on it, in large letters, slightly crumpled now under the pressure of the wiper. Faggot. Tom stared at it for a moment, then turned, walked unsteadily back to his car, started the engine and drove away.
Photograph © Tim Kavanagh/Millennium Images