Football Practice

Beneath a grumbling grey sky of clotted clouds with no silver linings, stands a wet, puddle-dashed school forecourt. Earlier, childrens’ playtime squeals had enlivened the forcourt. Now it stands empty, the childrens voices have all gone. Dreary weather. Dull, dingy and damp.

Alone, on concrete steps leading to a portacabin classroom, sits Billy, impervious to the cold and damp seeping through the seat of his trousers and the drizzle hanging in the air in fine silvery threads. He swings his legs over the edge of the steps, banging his heels against the rising side-wall. He slides a hand through the raindrops clinging to the rusty step-rail making a stream of orange rainwater flow over his palms, under his coat cuff, down to his elbows. He’s waiting; just hanging around.

Twenty minutes ago, Billy had watched other school children drag their feet across the tarmac, in singles, twos and three, with school bags slung around their necks, disappearing through the school gates towards home. He had heard their voices descend from the loud cacophony of a released herd, to the murmur of a swarm dissipating into the distance. Then all were gone, leaving him alone on the steps; under the formless, grey sky, swinging his legs.

Billy’s fingers struggle to fully open the zip on his school bag, a task made more difficult by the cold and wet. It’s stuck, half-open, half closed, and has been for two weeks so that books risk getting rained on, or scattered when the bag is flung across the floor, as boys often do. He gives up, reaches inside, and brings out a can of coke. Pulling back the ring, he cracks it ope and feels the sugary sweet liquid glide down his throat with a lip-smacking ‘ahh’. Then he just sits, can in hand, looking out across the empty school forecourt: Watching and waiting; just hanging around.

Football studs clack like horses hooves on cobbles, echoing in the rain. Boy’s skinny white legs emerge from a side-door and mingle in the overcast gloom; some with socks pulled up high, others with socks crumpled down – and two boys with one sock up and one sock down. Shorts, crispy clean, are pulled up tight around waists. Football tops, plain or striped, with collars raised and sleeves stretched down over hands. The boys wait, milling round, chatting, jumping in the puddles, pushing each other in the backs, click-clacking their studs on the hard concrete schoolyard.

Billy watches and sups on his can of coke.

A new clicking of studs, fast and determined, beat fast across the undercover paving slabs like the splattering of Chinese fire-crackers. The sound stops in front of the boys. The boys stand still and silently face a portly teacher, whose bloated stomach indicates more football matches watched than played. His eyes are dark, his eyebrows too, panning across the boys in inspection. Holding their attention, without saying a word, he quietly observes. The boys wait, each one feeling the teacher’s eyes focus upon him in particular.

‘Let’s go, boys,’ he then shouts, his instruction heard well beyond the distant school gate.

He throws a pile of team vests onto the ground; some red, some green, whilst holding tightly onto a brown leather football tucked securely under his arm and gripping hard a net sack of white balls in his hand. The boys dart down, scrabbling and fighting over the vests, until they pick out their favoured team colours, which they quickly throw over their heads to ensure places in their preferred teams.

‘Jackson – you take green today!’ orders the sports teacher. ‘Miller, you’re with the reds.’

‘But sir…’

‘No buts, unless you want to spend your time in the changing room – and Latimer and Hutchins, you’re both in goal today.’

Both Latimer and Hutchins turn round quickly, as if to complain, and then think better of it as their eyes meet those of the teacher’s. They glance at each other, in empathic resignation, and throw on their tops with visibly reduced enthusiasm.

He passes the net sack of white balls to Adesh Patel.

‘Here, boy. You can carry this.’

Now attired, the group is divided: Two bunches of boys facing across a space in between them. The teacher bounces the ball on the concrete. The boys eye it hungrily, all wanting to give it a kick. He raises his whistle to his lips. The boys wait for the signal – they know the routine. He drags out the pause – just to keep them waiting. The boys eye each other, elbows at the ready – ready, like startled herons, to flap their wings and take flight.

‘Peep!’

The drumming sound of studs pounding on concrete begins in earnest as the pack takes off in one, great, swooping mass. They stampede, more like a herd of bison than a flock of birds, heading for a gap at the end of the schoolyard between the girls’ toilets and the newly built teaching block. Passing through, they’re on the grass where the clacking of clattering studs deadens, becoming mute. The teacher leads the race in his black, woollen track suit, his whistle swinging to-and-fro upon its ribbon and occasionally smacking him on the nose. He drops the ball and gives it one almighty kick. This spurs the boys on faster. A few pass him to run on ahead, whilst the rest of the pack follows up from behind. The race is on.

Billy watches them go.

They arrive at the pitch and collapse at the side-lines, holding their sides and gasping for breath, clumped together in a neat semi-circle around their sports master. His cheeks are aglow, for he’s puffing too, and his thick quiff of black hair falls over his eyes. He brushes it aside, sweeping it back over his head, and surveys the boys before him. His boys. His team. He’ll make champions of them, yet.

Billy sits alone on the portacabin steps looking across the empty school forecourt like he’s waiting in the rain, on an empty platform, for a delayed train. He’s seen the boys sweep in-and-out like an express arriving and pausing to pick up passengers before rushing off in a hurry on a signal from a station master’s whistle, with noise and light and lover’s farewells and slamming of doors, until a silent nothingness returns. The boys had gone off to play football in one vast pack, sweeping in-and-out of the schoolyard like a dying rush of wind sucked out of the station, leaving Billy alone on the steps, banging his heels.

‘Great game at lunch’, he recollects, whilst sipping on his can of coke, ‘though hard and sweaty too. Of course, not like the games down the park on the long-summer evenings where we play till it’s dark and the ball can no longer be seen. But at lunchtime today, playing football in the schoolyard… Wow! Yeah! That was a battle! What sublime skills we produced… such crafty manoeuvres and swift passes down the line. And that lovely movement that developed from a couple of clever one-twos, and my quick back-flick, followed by Barry’s body-swaying dribble before passing to the Pete in the centre, who slid it deftly over the line. Yeah, that was true class!

Billy shifts his bottom on the steps and stares down at a scab on his knee showing through a hole in his trousers. He picks at it, his dirty fingernail prising the scab away from the flesh and it begins to seep blood. But now that he’s started, it’s hard to leave it alone and soon he’s staring down a pink-stained hole and examining a hard piece of dried scab between his fingers. He flicks it away, slings his school bag over his shoulder, slides under the railing and off the step. Normally he goes round to Pete’s after school, with Barry, and sometimes Nicholas, and they all squat on the floor together in front of the tele, with fruit juice and biscuits, watching cartoons, until Pete’s dad and brother come home from work. Then he starts out on his walk back home. But not today: Pete, Barry and Nicholas are playing football with the other boys on the school football pitch.

Billy can hear the sports master’s whistle blowing in the distance, like the whistle of the distant train disappearing into a tunnel. He hears the sports master’s loud voice floating in the air shouting instructions; harsh, yet softened by the light rain. Really, he should go home or his mum will start to worry. But instead, Billy turns in the direction of the sport’s master’s whistle and walks towards the gap between the girls’ toilets and the newly built teaching block.

On the pitch, two hundred yards away, Billy can see the boys running up-and-down between the goal-posts, passing the white balls between them, with the sports master standing square in the centre, legs astride and the brown leather ball at his feet.

‘Come on, Tyler,’ he shouts to a straggler, ‘d’you think you’re here for an afternoon stroll?’

Billy leans against a pillar and watches, knowing that Tyler is the plumpest lad on the team. The poor lad runs like a walrus, shifting his great weight forward in wild lunges, arms flailing and legs struggling to support him; especially by the time they reach the fourth up-and-down. He finally finishes, the sports master close behind him, and flops down to the ground coughing and wheezing. Then it’s press-ups time, with the sports master again shouting encouragements and again poor Tyler again having trouble to hold up his weight. Billy smiles: He does thirty of these at home in his bedroom every morning, and night, plus fifty sit-ups. Yet, Tyler collapses to the ground after only five.

Now the boys are standing in a semi-circle around the sports master, boots muddied with splashes patterning those clean white shorts. The sports master is gesticulating, arms and hands swinging right-and-left as he explains the finer points of football tactics. Right-hand held vertical, driving forward in attack; left-hand sweeping in for support, now fingertips pressed together, knuckles out, to show the line of defence and pinpointing the best position for the goalie. Not so far removed from a directors’ board meeting discussing business strategy, exploring openings in the market and attacks against competitors.

Further instructions ensue from the sports master. He nominates Jackson and Miller as captains and the boys line up in their teams; green and red. The sports master blows his whistle and the boys enter the pitch, with Jackson and Miller deciding who plays in defence, mid-field, and on the wing. They, of course, put themselves in attack. The sports master carefully places the ball on the centre spot and draws the two captains before him. Billy can see them huddling together with the other boys spread out all over the field. The sports master produces a coin and tosses it high. Then it’s being examined on the ground, heads or tails, deciding who should kick off the game. It’s decided. Miller won the toss. Billy hears a sharp whistle peep and the match begins.

The ball passes backward, then forward, and then sideward. Then one boy decides to dribble it alone and gets entangled in three defenders. He loses the ball and it’s booted up the field into space. Six boys all run to retrieve it, pushing and shoving. It’s knocked free from the mêlée and a seventh boy kicks it the other way back up the pitch. Now Bill’s friend Barry has got the ball. He’s trying to be clever and dummy his way round Jackson. But he fails. Jackson intercepts, takes the ball and boots the ball back to his goalkeeper. His team mates hold their hands up in despair at a lost opportunity, with an unmarked boy right over on the wing signalling: ‘Why didn’t you pass it to me?’

Billy too shakes his head, equally wondering, and picks up his school bag to walk closer to the pitch. The ground is soft, once the schoolyard concrete is left, and there are many muddy patches where hoards of boots often pass. To the right is an area of flooding: It always gets waterlogged down there at this time of year. Fortunately, the football pitch is on slightly higher ground. He tries to keep his school shoes away from the mud, but soon feels clods sticking to his soles. He’ll clean them off later before his mum sees.

Billy places his school bag down at the side-line; near the half-way line. The boys don’t notice his approach. He puts his hands in his duffle-coat pockets, fondles his prize conkers which earlier won him several games in the schoolyard contests, and begins to watch the match. Nicholas has now got the ball. He’s on the other team to Pete and Barry, and he’s looking around in panic for someone to pass it to since he’s coming under attack. No-one comes. His team mates just shout at him from a distance, especially Ian Norton who always hangs around the goal.

‘Over here, ‘he screams from fifty yards away, ‘on me ‘ead’.

Nicholas, in despair, kicks the ball into touch, just five yards down from Billy.

‘Peep!’

The whistle blows and the sports master comes running.

‘What d’you do that for, boy?’ he demands.

‘I had no-one to pass it to, sir.’ Nicholas replies.

‘Well, you should have passed earlier and now you’ve lost the ball. Jackson – your throw in.’

Jackson runs off the pitch and scoops up the ball, nodding to Billy, who he now notices. Billy nods back. Pete notices him too and waves from his position in defence. Billy waves back. The sports master glances over to Billy.

‘What you hanging around for, boy?’ he shouts, ‘Shouldn’t you be getting yourself off home?’

‘Yes, Sir.’ Billy replies.

The sportsmaster turns his back to Billy and raises his whistle to his lips to resume the game. The throw-in is taken. The ball is back on the pitch and Billy’s presence on the side-line is forgotten.

Billy stays and watches for ten minutes, silently wishing he was playing too. He naturally supports the red team, for that was the side of Pete and Barry, and he feels their excitement when they near the green goal. Equally, he feels their anxiety when the ball comes close to the goal of the reds. The ball flies left, and then the ball flies right. The boys charge up the field in chase, and then the boys flee back down the field in defence. Now it’s rolling fast towards the red goal, with Jackson just behind. Keith Hutchins, the goalie, stands up from his cross-legged position on the goal-line and sticks his gloved-hands out into the air.

‘Come out! Come out!’ shouts the sports master hurtling down the pitch towards the goal.

Keith Hutchins doesn’t come out, but stands stock still on his goal-line, smack-bang in the middle as the attacker approaches. He looks uncertain, bent forward, hands out in front, swaying to the left, swaying to the right. Jackson draws nearer with the ball at his feet. Keith Hutchins trembles. Jackson shoots the ball hard and smacks it into the net at the top-right corner. Keith Hutchins pauses, then dives down to the left.

‘Hutchins! You idiot! I told you to come out!’ shouts the sports master.

Keith Hutchins looks sheepish and retrieves the ball from the back of the net. The goal scorer runs towards his team mates, arms in the air, issuing forth a great whelp of delight. He’s hugged, back-slapped and has his hair ruffled. Then the reds all retreat to their side of the centre line for the game to re-commence. One-nil.

Billy picks up his sports bag. He’s seen enough. He wanders round the edge of the pitch to behind Keith Hutchins’s goal where a ball has slipped through the back of the net. He puts down his bag and taps the ball between his feet then knocks it high into the air. As it falls, he lets it bounce down from head to knee and back to foot, where he holds it at rest, before letting it drop and firing it into the back of the net.

‘Hey, you boy!’ he hears the sportsmaster scream, ‘leave that ball alone and get yourself off home!’

‘It slipped through the net, Sir. I’m just passing it back’, replies Billy

‘I’ll give you ‘slipped through the net’, boy. Now hoppit! Go home!’

‘Yes, Sir.’

Billy turns his back to the pitch and wanders back towards the schoolyard with the cries and shouts slowly dimming in his ears. He’s churning the game over in his mind thinking, ‘that Andrew Jackson, now he’s a good player, but why Mark Tyler’s on the team – I’ll never know.’

He crosses the schoolyard and reaches the drive just as a red mini rolls down. It’s Mr. Slater, his art teacher. The car stops beside Billy. Mr. Slater winds down the window and leans out:

‘Not gone home, yet, Billy?’ he asks.

‘No, Sir.’ says Billy.

‘So, why are you still hanging around here?’

‘I went to watch the football, Sir,’ answers Billy.

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr Slater looks at Billy. Billy looks away.

‘You play football, Billy?’ Mr. Slater asks, softly.

‘Yes, Sir – with my friends down the park.’

‘But not with the school team?’

‘No Sir.’

‘Oh. I see.’

Mr. Slater looks thoughtfully at Billy. He’s a young man, though a middle-aged man to Billy, and takes a real concern in all the school kids – even if they do joke about the way he manages to fit his lanky six-foot frame inside his tiny, red mini.

‘Why don’t you play with the team, Billy, if you like football so much?’ he asks.

‘Dunno, Sir.’ Billy replies, ‘guess I’m not good enough.’

‘Oh. I see.’ says Mr. Slater.

He retracts his head; pulls his arms back through the open window, and settles himself back in his seat, placing both hands on the steering wheel. He turns his head a last time towards Billy:

‘O.k. Well, get yourself home then Billy, and see you tomorrow.’ he says.

‘Yes, Sir.’ replies Billy.

Mr. Slater drives off with a wave and a quick toot-toot.

Billy continues alone along down the drive. At the school gate, he can still hear the sports master’s voice yelling out instructions and peeping his whistle, but even that dies out after he crosses the road and walks up the path opposite the school that passes between two rows of back gardens. He lives in a house at the end, on the left. They have tall side-wall there, rising above the garage to include their recent bedroom extension. Facing the path, it’s just perfect for kicking a ball against.

Arriving home he throws his schoolbag onto the floor under the kitchen table. That’s where it normally lives, until his mother screams at him to take it upstairs to him room. He looks around for his mother, then down at his shoes, and the muddy marks they’ve made on the kitchen floor. But mother’s nowhere to be seen, just his sister watching television on the living room sofa with a schoolbook open across her knees and felt tip pens spread out over the cushions, so he wipes the muddy marks off the floor with a sponge, and dabs a little at his shoes before going back out into the drizzly rain.

He finds his football in a flowerbed nestled beneath a rose-bush, just half-an-inch from an enormous, brutal spike. Gingerly he lifts the ball out, kneading it to check for a puncture. It’s fine. He exits the garden, by the side gate, and kicks the ball hard against the wall. It bounces back, directly to his feet. Again-and-again he kicks that ball, loosing himself in his sport. He hears the crowd cheer his stupendous passes; hears their gasps as his shots fly just over the crossbar, hears their roars of appreciation as he fires the ball perfectly into the back of the net.

The red brick wall is wide and large and every shot fired at it is shot straight back. A gentle tap, a lobbed high ball, a rocket blaster – all are returned. Impassable and unbreachable, the wall stands before him, impenetrable, blocking out the sky; perfect for his solitary game. No goal needed, no defenders to stand in his way no schoolmaster’s whistle to blow him offside. He kicks the ball hard again, imagining Keith Hutchins standing there in goal as he blasts the ball past his head. The ball returns, he skilfully traps it, turns on his heels, dribbles a few yards, turns and shoots – GoOAL!

Billy continues shooting at the wall until the light begins to fades. He sees his mother return home, who scolds him for ruining his school shoes and tells him to come in straightaway to get washed in time for tea. His brother arrives home on his bike having cycled back from secondary school. Billy asks him to kick the ball with him after tea. But he’s too old and serious now for such silly games and anyway, mother over-hears and says a definitive –

‘No!’ with her arms tightly folded across her chest, ‘your brother has homework to do and you still haven’t cleaned your dirty shoes.’

‘But mum..’

‘Do as your mother says,’ he hears his father growl from the hallway, which instantly stops any further complaints.

Never mind, tomorrow, he knows, the boys will be back in the schoolyard and at the weekend they’ll be down at the park. They’ll practice shooting and headers – him, Pete, Barry and Nicholas – and if they’re in luck they’ll take on other local lads in a game. And if they can’t make it, he’ll play solo with the brick wall as the opponent’s defence.

As it happens, his friends can’t join him at the weekend for they have a football match to play against another school. So, Billy keeps shooting at the wall; that hard, unbreachable, red brick wall, all weekend, until the sun goes down.

In fact, even when Billy’s school friends also become too old and serious for such silly games, he keeps shooting at that wall. And even when school days are long over, he keeps shooting at that wall. He has a stream of temporary jobs in warehouses, factories and pubs, but they don’t stop him shooting at that wall, aiming higher, but never breaking through. Even after he marries, and two years later gets divorced, he keeps shooting at that wall; that damned wall that blocks any progress, that continually stands in his way.

For a while Billy’s shots become more ferocious, as if trying to break down the wall. He grows angry at the wall and throws his whole weight behind the ball to belt it as hard as he can. But still it stands. Then he ignores it, hoping it will dissipate into thin air allowing him to pass through. But still it stands. So he studies it, analyzing its form and structure, trying to find its weak point to allow him to pass through. But still it stands. Looking for answers he monitors his brother and his friends, Barry, Pete and Nicholas, who have all long dispensed with the wall and moved into the realms of professional married men attending board meetings designing strategies and discussing production plans. But still the wall stands and still he keeps shooting at it; until, finally, accepting defeat, he gives up.

Billy sits alone on the bus station steps, swinging his legs over the side and poking a finger through a hole in his trouser leg to pick at a scabby knee. It’s a dull, dreary day with a grey, formless sky and a faint drizzle hangs in the air in fine silvery threads. He sits, idly watching and waiting; just hanging around. He reaches into a bag at his side and brings out a can of strong lager. Pulling back the ring, he cracks it open and feels the potent liquid glide down his throat with a lip-smacking ‘ahh’.

*************************************************

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