Advent Stories #12

THE VETERAN

bootsDeal didn’t need to ask for directions to the football pitches. He had not played there for twenty-five years, but he knew the way. Nothing had changed. The pylon standing sentinel at the entrance as you drove into the car park. The cinder training areas. The field stretching away into the darkness. Goal posts. Floods in the mist bled acid-white sodium into the blue-black night. He might never have been away.

The changing room was like any other he had known with its muddied benches, the plastic crates filled with weathered drinks bottles. A smell of sweat and soil, leather and stale smoke. There were two other men already there. One of them was sitting in his shorts, a paunch hanging over the waistband. He lighted a cigarette. Deal recognised him, which produced only a moment of flat joy as he realised it meant nothing. He must have played against him over the years, at school level, or for a Sunday league side: Under 13s, Under 15s, something like that.

The players pulled on dirt-encrusted boots: Adidas Predators in the main. No shinpads. Waterproof tops. Some of them carried bootbags. He felt woefully inadequate in his fleece and tracksuit bottoms. It was mismatched stuff. Running gear, climbing gear even, maybe. Not football kit. His new boots were cheap, unsullied, smelling of synthetic materials, not kangaroo leather, grass and mud. His blue and yellow Fila sports bag was designed for swimmers, or athletes, or tennis players; not footballers. With the thumb of his left hand he rotated the band of white gold on his ring finger, as he did whenever he was nervous. He looked like the tourist he suspected he was.

More players arrived. Pretty soon it became apparent that he and the other man, whose name was Roy, were the oldest there. Deal remembered Roy as he did himself, whenever he recalled his own footballing past. A young, energetic, enthusiastic player. Difficult to beat. A bit of flair. Speed. A player that made a difference, rather than one who made up the numbers. Roy was no longer built for speed – who was, in their mid-30s? – and Deal watched him now as he pulled on a heavy blue knee support. Deal felt a part of him inexplicably die. Maybe it was in the way that Roy accepted – amicably it seemed – that he was crocked, that he was not coming back from this. Presumably he had been playing a number of seasons coming to terms with that knowledge. Deal was finding that out via the regret of never having played regularly. He had yet to turn out for a proper team for longer than one season. The distractions of youth had been too great. Now all the girls, beer and TV were still there, the football was not. This was his last chance. In London he had played on Sunday evenings, but huffing around on Astroturf pitches for an hour with fifteen other unfit office workers wasn’t the same as getting out on the grass on a freezing morning with people who played the game because it meant something, because there was nothing else to do and would play even if there were.

Walking up to the pitches, the sound of football studs clacking on concrete – one of the truly magical sounds in life, his favourite – he found Roy keeping pace alongside him.

‘I thought you’d turned up with Phil,’ he said.

‘No,’ Deal said. ‘I saw the ad in the midweek Guardian. Needing players. I haven’t played in a while. I just want to get fit.’

‘Fair enough.’

‘I know you,’ Deal said. ‘I can’t think where from, but we must have crossed swords over the years.’

‘Yeah,’ Roy said. ‘I know your face too.’ He looked around at the pitches. Although he was carrying extra weight, he still looked comfortable with his own physicality, as most footballers did. ‘I’ve only ever played here,’ he said.

They accepted him, despite the awkwardness of getting used to a new bunch of people. Nobody was used to his name yet. ‘Connie,’ he said, to the first of them to ask, as the coloured bibs were being handed out.

Cunnie?’

‘No, Connie.’

‘Kenny?’

Connie.’

‘Fuck me, I wish I’d never asked.’

The footballers’ jargon. The banter. ‘Get it under, mate,’ as a ball came to him, fast on the wing.

‘Square.’

‘Time, mate. Time.’

‘Touch.’

‘And again.’

‘Have a dig.’

He was doing all right, considering he hadn’t played for a year and was wearing unfamiliar boots. There were a few passes that went astray and towards the end he was labouring to fulfil his defensive duties, but nobody berated him. He found his positional sense had improved intuitively. Knowing his job, maintaining the team’s shape and backing up when he was needed was more important than haring after the ball, wherever it might be on the pitch. He was intercepting passes made by the reds that he would otherwise have never reached. He was anticipating the play. He had to. He was an ageing footballer. Maybe this was his future in the game. A holding midfielder. He was no longer the mercurial wingman, taking on full backs and whipping crosses into the penalty area. Although essentially he didn’t feel any different to the way he had when he was in his teens, he appreciated that he couldn’t cover the same acreage any more. He couldn’t play box to box. Maybe it was even time to return to left back, the position he had started in at school, aged ten.

And then it was over. They marched back, the steam rising off them like ghosts failing to keep their shape. Occasional figures in far off kitchen windows, backlit by orange light, watched them leave. Already, Deal was missing it. Despite his burning lungs and the liquid lead filling his legs, he wanted the game to go on. Behind them, the floodlights were killed, one after the other. Darkness fell in wedges, overtaking them as they reached the car park. They moved through it and Deal was aware only of the gleam of sweat, the breath that fired from every mouth, along with the swear words, and talk of that night’s pints.

Deal showered quickly and made to leave before the others. He didn’t think it right to accompany them to the bar. He didn’t want to be standing on the fringes, meekly clutching his pint, unable to contribute to discussions with which he shared no history. He needed to get to know them first. The season was a long one. There was plenty of time. He had plenty of time.

‘You playing, Saturday?’ the manager asked, and Deal started, his hand on the door handle. He was about to say that he would if he was needed, but by then it was obvious the manager was talking to somebody else.

‘I can’t.’ This was Twinny, the right back. The other Twinny played in goal. ‘I need to spend some time with my girlfriend.’

‘You need to spend some time fucking playing matches,’ Roy snapped.

Twinny shut up and stared resolutely at the floor.

‘Thanks for the game,’ Deal said, feeling obliged to fill his pause.

‘No problem, mucker,’ the manager said. ‘See you next week.’

‘Yeah, thanks for coming,’ said Roy, pointedly, his eyes never leaving Twinny’s.

Deal trudged to his car. Behind him, the players filtered into the bar. He eased himself behind the wheel, already feeling the first shortening of muscle in his thighs and back. Getting out of bed would be difficult in the morning if he didn’t stretch and have a hot bath before he turned in. But he was so suddenly tired that he wanted his pillow above anything.

Except for food. He stopped at the chip shop on Manchester Road and bought a fish supper. A new fitness regime, he reasoned, meant that he would be able to eat pretty much what he wanted; the exercise would burn it all off. He had pocketed his change and was returning to his car, which was illegally parked on the dual carriageway, when he heard a shout behind him.

A young man came sprinting across the road and hurled himself on to the diamond-link fence that belonged to the secondhand car dealer. He was over the top and vanishing into the dark before Deal had the chance to ask if he needed help. More shouts followed. The traffic had melted away. It was just Deal and something coming. He got into his car and sank into his seat, kept his eyes on the rearview mirror. Three men in black sports gear moved across the road and over the fence with the speed and grace of natural athletes. He knew in that moment that they would catch the first man easily. Dread shifted in him, a delicious unfolding, like a hungry spider knowing that something has just been trapped in its web. He knew he had to act. But instead, he turned on the ignition and drove home, because at the moment his hand fell on the door latch, a fourth figure stepped out of the lights across the street and watched Deal until he departed.

*

He woke early, but not from choice. His legs were being painted with dull fire each time he moved. At least it was light outside. Deal rose ponderously, and made a mug of tea which he carried into his back yard. He sat among the rusting tools and bleached plastic toys, wondered what his two boys were doing now. How old would they be? Five and seven? He could be on a pitch with them now, teaching them how to volley the ball, how to trap it with one foot and pass with the other. How to beat an opponent with a drop of the shoulder. Did they ever think of him? Probably not. He had been gone a year, no, eighteen months. Christ, eighteen months already. Children forgot quickly. They adapted. The aches in his legs were joined by another, much deeper, that no amount of wintergreen would be able to budge.

He called in sick at the train depot and spent half an hour soaking in a hot bath, a flannel covering his eyes. His mind emptying, he suddenly saw himself as if from the doorway, the fabric of the wet cloth peaking and sinking on the troughs and ridges of his face. The soapy water filming the exposed parts of his body just above the water, where it gently beat against him, moving with the motion of his heart. He saw the condensation beading on the misfitting tiles around him, and the plastic shower curtain with its hem of mould. Mist on the mirror, which was flecked with pimples of shaving foam and toothpaste, minuscule obliques of plaque that had been catapulted from between his teeth by dental floss, and the grime powered off him during a thousand showers.

He looked down at himself and then looked away, his arc of vision shifting so swiftly it was like being on a wildly fast fairground ride. Colours bled into each other, light drenched his retina. His bedroom. He was looking at the angle his bed made against the back wall, the headboard with the old, old scars of love it had driven into the magnolia. The cheap Ikea office lamp and the small hill of paperbacks and newspapers gathering dust beneath it. The shoeboxes of letters and photographs beneath that needed sorting. A life lived that he needed to let go of.

The figure in black, watching him from beneath the streetlamp as he drove away.

He sat up in the bath and the flannel fell away from his face. He half expected to see himself standing in the doorway but there was only the shadow of traffic playing in a rectangle of light against the wall.

He dressed quickly and drove to Manchester Road. His aches were still there, still acute, but manageable now, pleasurable even. He stretched and cursed softly once he’d parked the car by the Dog and Partridge. He strolled to the secondhand car showroom and wandered down the side of the building, where rows of tired Nissans and Fords and Renaults were freshly parked.

‘Help you?’ asked an earnest young man, rubbing his hands together and squinting into the early morning sunshine.

‘Just looking,’ Deal said.

‘If you want to buy,’ the salesman said, ‘then Andy’s your man. Remember that.’

‘Yeah,’ Deal said. The salesman was a kid. He was no footballer, Deal could tell that straight off. He probably played badminton or squash in his lunch hour. Too skinny. Too mannered for football. He wouldn’t last five minutes on a pitch in midwinter, the sleet arrowing down and his marker up his arse, snapping at his heels every time the ball came near. Deal moved further along the line of cars, only peripherally aware of their colour and shape. He felt uncomfortable about his reliance on the game sometimes, how he used it to measure a man’s worth, or lack of it. But there was precious little else in his life to use as a barometer. He didn’t care one jot for the Premiership, or its pampered, superannuated cast list of wankers. Real football showed its guts on the uneven winter fields populated by hard men from pubs and clubs and shattered lives. There were midfielders in some of those teams who would make Roy Keane scream for his mother.

The back of the yard. Chainlink fence. One part of it slashed open and yawning. They caught him and then did this and took him through. Beyond the fence, an unshaved slope of pale-green beard slid down to a pulped mass of flytipped shit. He picked his way down the slope, stepping over the strange, shattered technology of things rarely seen: TV innards, rent computer keyboards, split car batteries bleeding grey foam. A dead rabbit lay incongruously next to all of this, part of its face sheared away to reveal a grinning wedge of white, yet it looked more alive than anything he had seen that morning. Everybody’s teeth were gritted like that, beneath the jowls and pouts. Everyone went around in an ecstasy of bruxism. Beneath every smile was a rictus.

Deal paused at the bottom of a ditch and rubbed his face. He didn’t want to look at his hands in case his pallour had come away in them. He tried to understand why he was here. Disappointment lay at the end of the trail regardless of what he did or didn’t find. It was a slice of violence, the kind of night-time riot you could find in any corner of any town if you went looking for it. Just leave it. Just back down. Return to the car showroom and test drive someone else’s cast-off. Then go home and catch up on your sleep, read a book, write a letter to the boys.

Any colour, when seen in the streetlamps, becomes so many variations of grey. Tucked under a green explosion of ground-elder, bastard cabbage and yarrow, a brilliant length of red and blue check. New fabric, dumped recently. Age had not yet settled in this and slowly sucked out its colour. He approached until it was clear that the fabric was filled. Yet what filled it was empty, and looking at him.

*

The names from those old teams come to him now, like poetry. Penlake, Fearnhead, Silver Birch, Rainhill, Monks. He had played for Penlake when he was still at school. Their ground was at Cherry Tree Farm, out St Helens way. He had played in the foulest weather and scored a goal in the quagmire of the penalty box, turning on a sixpence to shoot past the static keeper. It was as if everyone in the world had frozen in the instant he made his decision to move. Everything was grey: the sky, the pitch, the shirts of his own team and those of the opposition. The ball had been a gorgeous bright orange. He swore to his father that evening that it had scored a path through the air that had remained for seconds after.

He had never seen any of the players from his team again after that season. At the end of May, they held a gathering in a small club off the East Lancs Road. The team coach handed him a trophy of a footballer dribbling with a ball. The plaque read: Many thanks, 1982/83. He still had that trophy somewhere. Over the years it had become detached from the base many times and he had glued it so clumsily that a collar of gum had built up around the footballer’s shin. It was the only trophy he had ever earned. He often wondered if any of his team-mates had gone on playing football, had made it into the professional leagues, even. Maybe he would come across them if he continued training. Roy couldn’t be the only player he had intercepted in his youth who was still plying their trade in the Sunday leagues across the north-west.

Deal raised the glass to his lips and saw that his drink needed refreshing. It was always best to replenish a glass that had not been drained. It gave you the illusion that you weren’t drinking too much. Technically, you were only having one before bed. This one had lasted three hours, but still…

Roy Freeman. He remembered a game against Roy’s team – Rope & Anchor – from that one season. Rope were the outfit to beat. They won the league with the kind of machine-like regularity that Liverpool were achieving in Division One. Penlake were often their runners-up. In this game, which Penlake lost 2-1, Roy had scored a goal that made Deal’s jaw drop. The ball had come to him quick and thigh-high on the edge of Penlake’s penalty area. Roy’s back was to goal. He had somehow trapped, yet allowed the ball to slide off his leg at the same time as pivoting on his standing foot, then volleying into the net. It had been such a momentous display of balance and skill that Deal had found himself clapping even as the other team were trotting back to take up their positions for the kick-off.

He made tea, remembering how Roy had moved on the cinder pitch the previous night. He had been slow, but not cumbersome. His feet still had that quicksilver ability, even if the rest of him did not. He could score a goal like that again. Such feats were not dependent on speed and agility, but quickness of thought, of anticipation. That old Liverpool great Kenny Dalglish was never going to win any medals at sprinting, but his footballing mind was second to none. He could imagine a game that was happening beyond the prosaic hoofing that occurred in front of him. He was a chess player, really. Roy had a bit of that in him.

As he always did on a Saturday, Deal traipsed down to the newsagent’s and bought a red top and a broadsheet. He studied the previews of the weekend’s games over a large mug of strong coffee and found himself wondering what Euan and Alex might be up to, if they had started playing football for anyone, and if so, what their positions might be. He wondered if Carol ever went to watch them play.

The police had responded quickly to his anonymous call, made from a phone box on Manchester Road.

Thinking of football helped to keep his mind away from the broken body he had discovered. He had panicked at first, believing the man to still be alive, but the movements he made could only have been the slow, reflex adjustments of death. From the wall of the pub he watched the huge police presence assemble. Almost at the same time, an ambulance came tearing along Manchester Road, it lights flashing. While he watched, a young officer walked over to him and asked him if he had seen anything.

‘No,’ said Deal.

‘You didn’t call in about this?’

‘No.’ And then: ‘About what?’

The constable eyed him, but simply nodded his head and returned to the cordon. Deal left then, when he saw the PC in conversation with a number of men in plainclothes who all turned to look his way at the same time.

The physicality of the figure watching him drive away. His posture. His leaden grace. An athlete who had thickened and tired with fatigue, with years of injury.

That night Deal felt restless and caged. A little before nine o’clock he donned his grimy football gear and went out running. There was a light drizzle building thin nests around the streetlamps. The head- and tail-lights of cars were controlled explosions trapped in time. He jogged south along Orford Lane. The Martin Dawes stadium rose up above the flat slab of Tesco’s like an iceberg. Turning right he moved along Longford Street, the wind in his face cutting out all sound save that of the rasp of his cagoule. He pushed himself hard into the weather, crossing the Winwick Road and taking the hill over the railway. Pain unpicked the seams of his body and he pressed a hand against his side to keep it together. He took another right at Clout’s newsagent into Longshaw Street and ran past tired terraced houses with net curtains all shivering with synchronised patterns of television light. Further along, the housing stuttered, replaced by large paved spaces, a pub, a church, a small petrol station, a working men’s club and then a large recreation ground. The darkness was just about being pegged back here by weak floodlights. A game of football was being played on the pitch furthest from the road. The echoes of volleys detonated flatly into the dead spaces on all sides. A sporadic call for assistance, or an admonishment, sounded too shrill for a game that was meant to be enjoyed.

Deal padded across the dark field to the edge of the zone created by the floodlights. Now he could see why the voices sounded so high and panicky: schoolkids being given a late training session. Someone called out: ‘Euan, Euan, watch the short corner.’ Deal felt his bowels turn to water. There were other kids on the planet called Euan. Probably millions. Still, he felt compelled to check. He was about to step into the ring of light when he noticed another figure on the opposite side of the pitch do the same thing, like a mirror image that has somehow anticipated its leader. It was Roy. Deal was almost startled into a greeting, but something held him back. Maybe it was a reluctance to foster any familiarity, having only chatted to him once, and then momentarily. What else could it be? Yet he couldn’t broach that borderline. He flashed a glance at the boys legging up and down the lumpy, scarred pitch but none of the stricken faces meant anything to him. Eighteen months. It shamed him that he could not remember what his boy looked like.

‘Euan!’ he called suddenly, despite himself.

A boy on the far wing turned his head. Brown hair in need of a trim. An open expression. Too distant to be sure. Roy began walking around the perimeter of the pitch towards him. Why shouldn’t he? A stranger loitering in the shadows around a bunch of kids. Why shouldn’t he? Deal felt like screaming, he’s my son, but because he wasn’t certain, and because he didn’t want to ruin any potential standing with Roy, he retreated, falling back into the rhythm of his running, turning once, at the entrance to the recreation ground, to find that the lights had been switched off.

*

Anaemic sunlight met the insipid colour of the roofs beyond his window and almost cancelled each other out. Into this oblivion, Deal coughed and sneezed himself awake. He sat on the edge of his bed and felt his breath lift and sink like wet fire in his chest. He stared at the wedding ring on his finger, rotated it with the ball of his thumb, thought about removing it, selling it, moving on. Was there any hope of a reconciliation? Was eighteen months long enough to sue for peace, try again? Was eighteen months dead in the water? He couldn’t imagine Carol, even with the children, waiting for the wounds to heal. Thinking of her with another man, laughing, holding hands, kissing, making love, as they had done, reamed him of all warmth, all feelings of humanity. He remembered finding a packet of photographs in a box of things she had saved from a time before him. Looking at them made him feel cheap but he couldn’t help himself. There were pictures of her and a previous lover in a hot and dusty country, India maybe. There were pictures of her topless on a beach, her breasts firmer than he had known. There were pictures of her lover, naked in a bathroom or kneeling on bed, a blanket covering his groin. There was a picture of her lying back on a bed, the picture-taker’s knees on either side of her. Her hands were flung back over her head. She was looking at the photographer, she was looking at him. Her look said: come on, stop messing with that camera, come and undress me, fuck me now.

Cold rushed in, filling him completely, apart from that seam of unpleasant heat behind his sternum. He coughed hard and spat thick green phlegm into the empty mug by his bed. Great. He must have picked up something while training the other night. Getting older. Getting difficult to just shake things off. The ache in his limbs was like a taunt.

People before. People after. It was the same for everyone. It was the same for him. But it didn’t make things any easier to swallow.

He dressed and snatched up his keys, pushed the old car hard along the route he had run the previous night. Had the football not distracted him then, he might have kept going until he hit Harrison Square, the estate in Dallam where he had lived with his family. Or he might not. The pain was like the liquid in a spirit measure on an uneven surface. It would not settle.

He drove there now. When he saw the gaping hole in the street where the residential block used to be, shock made him step on the accelerator instead of the brake, flipping the car up on to the pavement and giving the engine block a good crack; his head too, which bounced against the ceiling of the car. A man in a blue blazer and a tweed flat cap shook his head as he passed him on his bicycle. Faces came to windows. Deal got out of the car. His head was bleeding a little, but the car was all right.

The residue of demolition lay around him. Local kids had stolen much of the paraphernalia of the wreckers: traffic cones, hazard signs, warning lights. Shattered brickwork and cement lay on the paving stones in front of an acreage of black that shocked Deal to his core. He stared at a shivering tree behind the dead air that had once contained the residential block. It was hard to reconcile that hovering space with the happiness that had followed the birth of his two boys. He remembered them all eating breakfast on the day after Carol had come home with Alex, their second son. He had been clamped to her breast while he shook corn flakes into bowls for the rest of them. The radio was on. Euan was wearing his Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas. He and Carol were in tatty towelling robes. Watery wintry sunlight staggered through the kitchen window and painted the far wall with a colour that Dulux would never have advertised but was more beautiful than any Deal had ever seen.

In one of the windows he recognised a face from the past. He waved. The window opened.

‘Con,’ the woman said, flatly.

‘Hi Lesley. How’s the family?’

‘Keeping out of prison for now,’ she said. ‘That was quite a landing.’

‘I had a jolt, seeing this place.’ It was strange being able to see through to what lay behind the block: a great wall of nettle and toadflax; beyond that, Bewsey woods and a partial sight of a weathered, lifesize resin dinosaur in the trees at Gulliver’s World theme park. ‘I don’t suppose you know where Carol and the boys—’

Lesley’s lips disappeared into a flat line. She shook her head. But he knew she knew and wasn’t telling. Lesley had been Carol’s closest friend here at Harrison Square. They met for coffee and cigarettes in the little greasy spoon by the post office when the boys were at school.

‘Do you at least have her number?’

Another shake of the head. But something in his voice must have melted her, at least a little bit. ‘They’re safe, Con. That’s as much as I can give you.’

‘Why won’t she… I only want to see my boys.’

‘I can’t help you. I’ll tell her you were here… if I see her, I’ll tell her.’

‘But—’

She pushed back from the sill. ‘There’s the door. I have to go.’

*

Hours later, his cold had settled, deepened, and was steadily replacing the spaces behind his face with pain and sludge. A lump had risen where he had banged his head, but any discomfort had been subsumed by this greater, more general malaise. He washed dishes and listened to the football on the radio. Grandstanding show ponies with £500 haircuts. Diving, cheating, arguing with the referee. Tactical bookings. Handballs into empty nets. He had to turn the commentary off when it became too much like a stench for the ears. There seemed to be so many stoppages during a game now. Referees pressured into checking on decisions with their touchline assistants, managers sent to the stands, skirmishes in the centre circle, injured players being ordered off the field of play before being allowed back on. Nothing like the real game being played out in the badlands. Reputations counted for nothing in those theatres of dreams. It was all about the three points. The difference between fifth and sixth place at the end of the season amounted to six figure sums. Teams celebrated when they finished fourth because they qualified for the following year’s Champions’ League. You didn’t have to be a champion to spoon some of that gravy down you. Losing was winning. Except out here. In this town, on these unlevel playing fields, in all weathers, losing was losing. You didn’t get Securicor to pick up your wages. You didn’t drive home in a warm car that cost more than three terraced houses. No phone calls to the agent to agree to that million pound sponsorship deal for a brand of sunglasses. There were no such balms. You lost, you were shit. You tried to wash the taste of it away in the pub. You thought of the next game while you toiled for a pittance at the factory. You washed your own blood out of your own kit, and were prepared to spill it again for the privilege of wearing it.

You didn’t kiss your club’s badge and then pocket a huge signing-on fee for the next club that offered you a contract. You knew the value of working in a team.

The phone rang.

‘Connie. It’s Roy.’

‘Roy?’ His head shifted like half-set glue. The name was like a word he’d never heard before. And then the face swam out of his confusion and he understood. ‘From football?’

‘Yeah, Roy from football. We’re fitting in a training session tonight. A run. You up for it?’

Deal gritted his teeth. He felt like something folded from cheap paper.

‘Connie?’

‘Yeah. I’m up for it.’

‘Top. We’re setting off from The Blackie Arms at eight o’clock. With you, that’s five of us. Hard core. See you in a bit.’

Two runs in two nights. When was the last time he’d managed that? Half a lifetime ago, maybe more. He ate a banana and half a bar of fruit and nut, washed it down with a pint of tap water. Then he put on the previous night’s sweats and pulled a woollen beanie down over his ears. At the door he paused and looked down at his wedding ring. He’d had a sudden, strong impetus to remove it, put it somewhere safe, but the moment passed. The sound of the door closing felt very strongly like an underlining, a separation of his life into what had gone before and what was about to happen.

The night smelled fresh, untainted. The symptoms of his cold, disguised in this bitter, sniffing darkness, might almost have been in abeyance. He got into his car and ghosts crept up the glass around him until he could not see outside. Heat was coming off him powerfully. Not well. Not well at all.

‘Shit,’ he said, miserably, and swiped at the glass with the back of his hand.

*

The Blackburne Arms was on Orford Green, a mile from his house. He had not been there for many years. It used to be a place to take girls, rather than have a drink with your mates. When he arrived, four figures were standing under the security light in the car park, stamping, stretching, smoking. He parked and got out, nodded at the others, then began to warm-up. A fine drizzle hung in the air, clinging on to the exhaled smoke. Deal couldn’t get a proper grip on the others’ expressions. The wateriness of his eyes didn’t help.

‘Top man, Connie,’ Roy said.

‘Yeah,’ said Cosgrove, the right midfielder. He wore his hair long, and had tied it off in a ponytail. The other two footballers, Fives and Smithers, remained silent.

‘Where are we going?’ Deal asked.

‘Usual route is along Capesthorne Road, Blackbrook Avenue, south along Lambs Lane to the Manny Road, then Marsh House Lane, right at the barracks up O’Leary Street, Hallfields Road and back here for a pint.’

‘That’s some ride,’ Deal said.

‘It’s a fair distance, but it’s doable.’

‘Okay,’ Deal said.

Cosgrove took the lead, Smithers and Fives the tail. Roy ran alongside Deal, taking the roadside half of the pavement. Very quickly Deal felt that he was being boxed in.

The drizzle thickened, became proper rain. Despite the incipient menace coming off the men, their physicality, the darkness engraved in their features, Deal was pleasantly surprised to find the run much easier than the one he had undertaken a day earlier. He guessed it was to do with running in a pack. The other footballers grunted brief encouragements to each other, especially after the first couple of miles, when calves tightened and lungs began to burn. It was easier to push yourself when there were others to cajole you along. You didn’t want to lose face by stopping.

They were on Lambs Lane, approaching the busy main road at its foot, when Roy nudged Deal on the shoulder.

‘Change of route,’ he said. ‘Follow us.’

Deal did so, although alarms were jangling all over his body. There had been no debate about altering their original plan. He felt the first kick of real fear and wondered if he had the legs to outrun them if he took off. Probably not. The preceding thirty minutes or so had been designed to take any sting out of his pace.

They crossed Manchester Road and filed through the entrance to the cemetery, Deal noting with dread that the winter closing time on the laminated notice on the gate had lapsed an hour previously.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked. Adrenaline pumped him up, made him forget about his cold. He felt angry that he had allowed them to dupe him like this. He wouldn’t let them do what they did to their victim at the reservoir without a fight.

‘We had to talk to you, chief,’ Roy said.

‘You only had to ask.’

‘It’s not the kind of thing you can discuss over a pie and a pint, eh boys?’

Fives, Cosgrove and Smithers muttered their assent.

‘What the fuck is going on?’ Deal asked. The question wrote a cheque that his voice could not cash.

They were deep into the cemetery now, countless headstones sinking away into the dark like the rows of teeth in a Great White’s mouth. The traffic sounded fuzzy and dreamlike. Red lights from Chevvie’s, the bar opposite the cemetery’s entrance, hung in the wet air and bled, like a fish fouled on a hook.

There was a shed in the far corner, spilling a pale rectangle of light on to the oldest parts of the graveyard. They shepherded Deal towards it. When he resisted, Roy put a hand on his arm and shook his head. A callow youth, a student perhaps, closed his book and shrugged on a Parka, left the shed without speaking. The padlock for the front gate was on a table, mottled with rust.

The five men stood in the shed, their breath turning to steam, which joined the vapour from their exertions. A heavy animal smell, all fear, muscle and testosterone, was as invasive as a sixth figure. The shed creaked. Rain whispered against the mildewed glass panes in the window.

‘I want you to understand, Connie, that we’re grateful to you for not… going public on anything you might have seen recently. I want you to know that we’ll repay that loyalty. The fact you came out tonight, with your head full of snot, means something to us. Some people know about teamwork. How important it is. There’re players staying in with their birds tonight. They’d rather have a curry, a fuck on the sofa and watch something on ITV than get muddied up with us cunts. So you’ll be… selected next week, if you can prove your fitness.’

Deal said, carefully, ‘What did happen the other night?’

‘We were dropping a player to the bench.’

Fives snorted laughter.

‘You left him to die.’

‘Oh no we didn’t.’

Deal licked his lips. He felt his grip on the situation loosening. He didn’t understand. He felt the way he had on the day he came home to find Carol and the boys gone. One of Alex’s toys, a simple wooden jigsaw puzzle, was half completed on his bedroom floor. He had stood and stared at Alex’s picture of Daddy on the wall until it grew dark, his mind unable to unfold beyond that mad scrawl of black crayon slashed through with red, for a mouth. It had been like looking into a mirror.

‘What do you mean?’ Deal said.

Roy said, ‘We’ll show you.’ He sent his elbow into Fives’ nose. The deep, crunching noise filled the shed. Deal thought he felt it vibrate in his chest. Fives staggered back, his hands on his face, trying to simultaneously stem the flow of blood and wipe it clear of his eyes so that he could see what was coming. He knew what was coming. He was saying something, trying to say something. Deal managed to wonder, through the rushing of emotions, how the word no was always ignored in the middle of violent acts. His own mouth was trying it on for size, but it wasn’t impinging on Roy’s intent.

‘Roy,’ he said, but his mouth had turned to dust.

Roy grabbed Fives’ hair and hauled him through the door on to the path, grunting as his injured knee was forced to move in ways it oughtn’t. Fives was now trying to say please, but the blood running down the back of his throat was spoiling the word.

‘Hold him down,’ Roy said. Cosgrove took one arm, Smithers the other. Each man knelt on a leg. Fives resembled a crucifixion without the wood. His chest heaved as he tried to struggle upright. Deal thought, Cosgrove has lovely hair. I ought to grow mine out like that. His legs were jittering so much he thought he would fall over.

Roy kicked Fives until the fight had gone from him. Then he disappeared into the shed and returned with a large roll of masking tape. He started winding it around Fives’ shattered nose and mouth. Tiny red bubbles leaked from its edges; gaps that Roy assiduously plugged.

‘Hold him, boys. He’ll buck like fucking fury.’

He took out a stopwatch and did not look away from its dial for six minutes.

When they peeled off the tape and began trying to revive him – Roy going so far as to stamp on Fives’ chest – Deal had to look away. His eyes fastened on a headstone picked out in tired yellow light from the shed. Raymond Ives, 1939-1943, drowned aged 4 years.

‘Euan,’ he whispered. ‘Alex.’

Spluttering sounds. Vomiting. The ragged breath of someone whose brain is powering that but precious little else.

Roy’s breath at his ear, hot and filled with Wrigley’s Extra. ‘Death’s too good for some cunts.’

*

Somebody was playing a song he recognised; old Radiohead, I Can’t, it was called. It lanced him to think of his favourite band as rock stalwarts, already six albums into their career. He had happened across Steve Wright on Radio 2 a few days previously and was appalled to hear him refer to a Cure song from the 1980s as a Golden Oldie. But then, he supposed that back then, if he’d heard a song thus described from a similarly retarded span he’d have agreed with the DJ. Another love, Nirvana, were ten years finished. At least they were still influential. You got older, you felt the same as you did when you were in your teens; everything else that still looked or sounded new to you was ancient. Time was not a uniform concept. It did not behave fairly.

He bought a drink, unable to meet the barman’s eyes, and took it over to the window. The gates to the cemetery were shut and padlocked now. He thought of his feet on the pavement tonight, as much to prevent him from thinking about what lay beating on the path inside.

Once, he had been a good runner. Fast. Back in the days when you used to run for no other reason than it felt good. He ran the 100 metres in a shade under 13.5 seconds when he was twelve. He was nudging 11 seconds when he finished school. Some time in the twenty years between then and now, his ability had peaked and dropped off. A graph of his achievements would resemble a camel’s hump. Running flat out, with the feeling that you could go a bit faster if you really want to try for it, was as exhilarating a feeling as any. Sprinting in the dark always felt as if you were beating your personal best. Sometimes it felt as if he had been doing nothing else.

He couldn’t finish his drink. It tasted metallic. He left it on a table and went back out into the rain. There was a telephone box a couple of hundred yards to his left, by the junction with King Edward Street. He was moving towards it before he had fully thought out his intentions. He didn’t make it half way before he noticed the dark shapes in cars parked along the Manchester Road, or in a window over the newsagent’s, or loitering at the edge of a cul-de-sac’s shadows. A man stepped out of the shop, crossed the road and stood in front of the door to the phone box. He felt like George Segal in The Quiller Memorandum.

I’ve got a phone at home, you know, he wanted to yell. I’ve got a mobile by the bed. But he knew it wasn’t about access to telephones. It was a reminder. A warning. They were very gently bending him towards complicity.

He walked back to the Blackburne Arms and sat in the driver’s seat for a long time before starting the engine. The rain had thickened and was swarming across the windscreen. He wondered if Fives would drown.

*

The next training session was not for another two days, but the fields, though empty, seemed to hold the essence of the exertions that were regularly shown here. The rain had stopped. Smoke from damp Autumn fires on the allotment moved cinematically across the pitches and the cinder five-a-side area. There was the deep, organic smell of dead or dying leaves, and the occasional, illegal tang of burning plastic. Deal could just make out figures far off in the gloom, stalking through the rows of cabbage and cauliflower. He wondered what home life must be like for them, if they preferred to spend late hours out here. Would he have done the same, when things had grown so bad?

Though he was tired, and afraid, and unable to return home, Deal felt the call of this place in his calves and thighs. He got out of the car and breathed deep of the cold, acrid night. The fields were soft underfoot, but not sludgy: the grass kept its shape. The cindered section winked. He was suddenly struck with a strong sense of recognition for it, or something it contained, but he couldn’t move beyond that surprise to identify what it might be. It was like sensing some shape in dense foliage, or almost grasping the secret image in a stereogram. It was like seeing a face from your youth and being unable to put a name to it.

He shrugged away this vague frustration and scanned the rest of the recreation ground. From this spot to the goalposts, just palely visible, was a hundred metres, give or take. He was suddenly back on the school field of his youth, the 400 metre circuit branded in the grass. They never had anything like blocks or spikes, but they had the explosive trigger of youth, extensor muscles that twitched readily, like the legs of grasshoppers.

Deal took off, trying to locate that dormant impulse. He pumped his legs hard, punched the air, as he had been coached. He tried to relax into the sprint, keep his head level, but all he could think about was Fives’ mouth with its wet, red lipstick collapsing in on itself as he tried to remember how to breathe. He came to a standstill, a third of this personal time trial left to run, an invisible stopwatch running down.

He turned and the cinder pitch reached out into the dark, softly gleaming, the sense of something there to be determined now gone.

*

Carol? Is that you?

He wakened into a hot, airless room. Sweat was sandwiched between his skin and the fleece that he had been wearing for so many hours. His hand still held the receiver from his dreams. He delved for the number he must have rung but it would not come to him. She never said hello when she picked up. It was always: Carol speaking. He wondered what he might have said to her in his dream, if he hadn’t been interrupted by consciousness.

He got up and made his way to the thermostat, turned the heat way down. It had been freezing when he let himself in. It was not yet light, but something unstable in the night’s colour told him that dawn was not far away. He took a blistering shower, turned on the radio and made himself coffee.

He went out and bought newspapers. He read of a 20-year-old footballer for a top six Premiership side who, in the same sentence, pledged himself to his club but couldn’t rule out a change of scene should the right offer come in. They were plucked from normality at such a young age, they never knew what it was like to fail, in a normal sense. Failure for them was not earning their weekly bonus. The extent of their cossetting was such that they didn’t have to want for anything. They had an entourage to see to their every need. He imagined the kind of mental meltdown that would occur if one were to be left on a street corner without a map or a wallet. When did too much money become enough? Why did a multimillionaire need to agree to put his face to engine oil ads in the Far East for a seven figure sum?

Perhaps his psyche had fastened on to the intensifying focus of his need and was urging him to find closure, one way or another. From under his bed he dug out two shoeboxes containing letters and notes and photographs that he had stored away eighteen months previously. He believed he might never look at them again. But something had stopped him from throwing them away. Now, concretising his heart, he lifted the lids and went back in time to a point where he had met and fallen in love with Carol Matthews. He found letters he had both written to and received from her (of course, why would she want to keep his?). Initially their correspondence had been light, full of jokes and self-deprecation, offers of petty help, invitations to parties or films or drinks. A couple of months later, the letters increasing, their content became less inhibited. She wrote about what she liked him to do to her, about what she wanted them to do together in the near future. I want to pour honey over your cock and balls and suck it off, I want you to fingerfuck me while I watch in a mirror. I want you to go down on me in the front row of the cinema. I want to film you ejaculating and then play it back over and over in slow motion while I bring myself off. How does that sound?

He held the letters gently in his hands. Her florid, cursive script contained the innocent energy of a child. He liked the way she punctuated her sentences with little smiley faces, or laughing asides (tee-hee!). When she ran out of space, she continued up the sides of the page. Her marginalia was dotted with sketches of flowers or cats or, arrestingly, depictions of her own cunt with his name tattooed on the labia. I love you appeared for the first time. Her words, not his. She had introduced that particular game and now she’d taken her ball home with her. Those words bounced back at him from the walls of the empty house. His erection would not subside.

One letter existed from the dawn of her first pregnancy, shortly before he moved in with her and they no longer needed to write to each other.

She wrote: Darling Honeybum (I luv your bum, so soft and squidgey) – So hey, we’re going to have a little Connie or Carol to love and take care of. Whoopee, but a bit scarey at the same time. Yes? What about marying me and making me an honest woman? Not a shotgun wedding, though people would think it (haha!). Carol Deal. Quite a jolly name, I reckon. I love you so much it makes my heart (my hearts!!!J) miss a beat. I can’t wait till we are a famly and can spend more time together laughing and chating and changing nappies (aaaargh!!). I am happier than I have ever been in my life, and glad, so very glad, to be with you and ready to spend the rest of my days with you and the little one. What will it be? A boy or a girl? I’ve already made a list of names. I really like Eve for a girl, or Euan for a boy. What do you think? I won’t be mad if you hate them, or prefer something else. I love you, teddy bear. I love you. I love you. All my love, Cxxx

Where does all the love go? How does it change from all of that effusiveness to the sour, niggardly infolding that sent him away? It was like the feeling of indestructibility you felt as you trotted out on to the brilliant green pitch before a game, and the way it was steadily eroded as the goals flew in past your goalkeeper, and the playing surface cut up, became an unplayable morass. You were liable to injure yourself on it if you carried on, but you always did. You always gave 110 per cent.

He was at work by eleven, despite feeling worse than on the day he played hooky. He evaded his work colleagues, not wanting to be engaged in talk of the weekend’s results.

He worked diligently, missing lunch, only stopping at six for a cup of tea. His hands were bruised and his arms were heavily corded from the effort he had put into the repairs on the southbound track just north of Bank Quay station. He squinted along the parallel tracks to the point where perspective brought them together. The hot, sweet tea hurt the raw strip of his chest, but it was a good feeling. His mother had always given him tea when he had been upset, or sick, as a child. Drinking it infused him with warmth and hope. He felt crazily sure that if he walked these tracks to that ultimate point he would find them actually touching. He absorbed some strange comfort from the thought.

After a shower, and a late tea at the caff on Bridge Street, he decided against returning home and sat riffling through the pages of an address book stuffed in his glove compartment. Carol had said they should keep a copy of friends’ and relatives’ numbers to hand in case they ever needed to contact them while out in the car. Deal had thought it a dumb idea, but never got rid the book when they split up.

Now he trawled the scalloped edges of the index, all of them bent and grimy, except for the tab XYZ. One of them was grimier than most: F. He flipped to it, determined to track down his wife and work something out, even if it meant a divorce. At least that way he would be able to move forward. He would be able to see his boys.

The names were lined up neatly, some of them forgotten already to Deal. It encouraged him. Someone in this book would be of use to him, even if it took all night to make the calls.

Dave and Hannah Fleming. Ian Flint (plumber). Foy’s (hair). Ray and Jean Farmer. Stewart Fentiman. Alice Fowler. Alice Fowler’s mum. Roy.

It wasn’t so much those three letters as the lack of a surname that jammed him back in his seat. In that moment he knew that Carol had been having an affair with him. It was almost funny that he found this more shocking than the possibility that she knew what Roy was doing in the evenings.

Disgusted, yet weirdly exhilarated, Deal flung the book into the back of the car. His hunt was over without a call needing to be made. She was with Roy. He felt perversely proud about this, at the same time as feeling his heart battered by cruel fists. This man was seeing his boys every day. He was playing with them, hugging them, putting them to sleep. He was their point of focus for what it meant to be a man. He was who they turned to when they were afraid.

He sat in the car, playing with the keys (the key ring contained stainless steel ingot bearing the brand name Viagra, Carol’s little joke for his 30th birthday) not knowing what to do. He turned on the radio and listened for local news bulletins. When Graeme Fives’ name was mentioned, he gave a start, although he had been waiting for just that. He was in a stable condition. Police wanted to talk to a man who had been seen in the area that night. They went on to describe Deal’s running gear with alarming detail.

He switched off the radio and felt sweat oil the creases all over his body. He checked the street was empty and slid from his car. He took off his beanie and tossed it into a skip piled high with masonry from a renovation taking place in one of the terraced houses further along from him. Inside, he stripped and cut his training gear into small pieces. Then he dressed in jeans and a sweater, thought about shaving, about changing the look of his hair and decided against it. That would only bring attention from his neighbours, who had rarely seen him in any state other than tousled and stubbled. He left the house, cringing as the door slammed, realising how late it was, and set off at pace. Where to dump it? Some of it could go in dustbins both public and private, some of it in the canal, some of it scattered in fields. It was all saturated with his DNA, but it was the best he could do, beyond burning it, which he didn’t want to do because again it would attract attention. And then he thought of the fires burning in the allotments by the football pitches.

He left the car where it was and walked. It took a couple of hours, there and back. The allotments had been deserted, and rightly so at this Devil’s hour, when people were sleeping, or dying. He used a garden fork leaning against a stack of rubber tyres, tucked the clothing into the smouldering heap of yesterday’s conflagration. As he was leaving he saw one of the floods above the cinder training area blaze into life. A figure moved into the spot it created. It stood there for an age before beginning to run, up and down the cindered training zone, a hefty figure with a determined lean, favouring his left leg as he put in the miles.

When Deal got home, his clothes were full of the organic stink of burning vegetation and his mind couldn’t shake off the bullish figure as it trained. He fell into bed and pulled the covers around his neck. Before sleep took him, he thought the snug feeling there were the arms of his boys pulling him tight, and he shouted out.

*

Training. Seven-thirty. Traffic lights, Manchester Road. Heavy rain. His foot dipping the accelerator and relaxing. The engine complained. Why was he going? He was going because it was more dangerous to stay at home. He was going because this way he was closer to his wife and children. They were accessible, almost accessible, close enough for him to feel they might still fill a hole in his life if he could only work out how to proceed. A police car to his right, visible through the dream shapes of rain on the glass. A police strobe ahead, a van shooting the lights. Heavy presence on these bleak streets. Somehow he knew it would not matter if there were a hundred policemen on patrol, a thousand. Roy was a ghost. He was above the law. Dip and relax. Dip and relax.

He parked his car in shadow, up against the wall of the sports club. Orange light fell from its windows, along with the ventilated fug of cigarette smoke, flat beer and cheap perfume. Laughter was muffled, as if in attempted concealment. He imagined badly rouged lips flattening against poor teeth. False nails rattling against thin tabletops ringed with Venn diagrams proscribing years of suffering and anxiety. Vodka and pineapple. Rum and black. Lager top, mate, and one for yourself. You had to enter the club to get to the changing room. He had done it before but now the thought of it seemed intolerable.

He waited until he was sure there were no other footballers approaching because he didn’t want to walk with anybody. He didn’t want to interact. He just wanted to play the game, to run the circuits and go home. Was it really only a week since he had arrived for the first time?

He carried his bag along the path to the club entrance. To his left, men were smoking on the crown green square, laying down jacks and chasing them with ebony wooden bowls. He heard someone call out: ‘Short as a carrot, Jack!’

Too right. Too fucking right.

He changed quickly, quietly, into gear he had found mouldering at the back of his wardrobe. There was nobody in the changing room from the night of Fives’ relegation to the bench.

Stable condition. Death is a stable condition. I fancy some of that. Short as a carrot.

Black laughter shot from him, along with about half a pound of snot. Nobody noticed. He wiped his arms across his face and hurried outside.

They were waiting for him. The floods were on, brighter than he remembered them. The air above the cinder training area fizzed. He had to squint to make everyone out. Someone, Roy, was juggling a bright orange ball. It beat against the leather of his boots, staying clear of the floor, it seemed, by dint of sheer magic. Roy wasn’t even watching it, his eyes were on Deal.

‘Five a side,’ Roy said. ‘Me, Connie, Smithers, Cosgrove, Tann. Us lot against the rest of you dumb twats.’

Bibs were handed out. The sound of the harsh fabric as it scraped past Deal’s ears made him flinch. He didn’t want to be here. The strength was gone from his legs. He was tired beyond the meaning of the word.

The orange ball moved as if it were responding to beacons positioned on everybody’s feet but his own. He chased it, and the opposition with dogged determination, but it was fifteen minutes before he got a touch, and then it was a bad one: he gave the ball away.

‘Connie!’ Roy said. ‘Get stuck in, you fucking fanny.’

He received the ball wide on the left and tried to take it past Marshy, but the ball was stolen easily off his toes. He attempted a volley and hit only fresh air. He went to head the ball and it mashed into his face. Blood filled his mouth. He thought they were attacking him, but the noise was laughter. He staggered off the cinder pitch and sat down on the touchline. He thought maybe his nose was broken; it was too painful to breathe through, but breathing through his mouth, the wet, sucking sounds he made, only reminded him of the other night.

‘Are you coming back on, or fucking what?’ Roy asked him.

Deal made to rise but dizziness planted him back down. More laughter. Through the haze of his watering eyes, and the unstable lighting, he watched the figures criss-cross before him. The orange ball developed a smeared tail, like a comet. Pain throbbed in his sinuses. Nobody was calling for the ball any more. They moved like magnets repelling each other, threading passes without looking up for support. It was beautiful. He realised, a moment before the lights were killed, that everybody was watching him while they played. He felt cold rippled up through him, displacing the pain.

‘Time’s up,’ someone called, needlessly. The talk turned instantly to pints and women. Nine backs to him, treading towards the showers, steam rising off them like a threat. Roy came to him, hunkered down.

‘You had a bad night tonight,’ he said.

‘No shit.’

‘Something bothering you?’

Deal started laughing. He couldn’t stop, even if he could have seen Roy’s face, and any displeasure that rode it. Blood and saliva pooled in the folds of his bib like strange soup. And then tears joined it. Suddenly he was screaming: ‘What do you want with me? What are you going to do with me?’

Roy’s voice was maddeningly tranquil. ‘You and me, let’s have a run.’

‘Fuck that,’ Deal said, his fingers toying furiously with his wedding ring. ‘I’m sick of this. Tell me what – ’

‘I’ll tell you while we run. Come on.’

He began jogging on the spot until Deal had drawn himself to his feet. Then the two of them headed out along the twinkling cinder carpet. The only sound was their breathing, and the dusty crumbs as they were pulverised beneath their feet.

‘I come here when I can’t sleep,’ Roy said. ‘I always come here, rather than plodding the streets. Less dangerous.’

Deal felt like laughing again, but he was too tired. All at once, he just wanted Roy to get it over with. He decided he must force his hand. ‘You’re fucking my wife,’ he said.

Roy seemed not to have heard him. ‘I train all the time. I don’t look like I do, but I’m fitter than a butcher’s dog. I run all the time. Always running, that’s me. Maybe more because if I don’t the pain will catch up and I’ll never be able to move again.’

‘I want to see my boys,’ Deal said.

‘I thought you might run with us, if you know what I mean. There was something in you that I recognised. Something apart from everyone else. A knowledge. An experience. But at the same time, a loneliness. Someone who didn’t fit in well, whose edges kept knocking against what was conventional.’

‘Young boys should not be kept away from their father. You should understand that, even if Carol doesn’t.’

The smell of the fires clinging to the wet air caused him to sneeze a gruel of blood and phlegm into the cinders.

‘In the end,’ Roy said softly, looking at him out of the corner of the eye, ‘we return to the soil that produced us.’

Their feet crunching, pulverising the shards.

Deal said, as if through a dream: ‘My boys.’

Roy said: ‘They are not your boys.’

Deal reckoned he might be able to escape if he vaulted the makeshift fencing around the allotments, but he stumbled and fell hard even as he was summoning the energy to put space between them. His mouth filled with dust. All he could taste was blood. A picture came to him of a delivery room bathed in sunshine. Euan’s head appearing, streaked with meconium. Deal’s arms around Carol’s neck, loving her, helping her, trying to help her in the amazing thing she was doing. Whispering his love, his encouragement, as Roy’s son was born. On his knees, his face in the ashes, he saw how the crushed cinders looked like so many particles of bone. The smell of the fires carried a heavy, greased edge.

‘She was mine first,’ Roy said. ‘A long time ago. She used to come here to watch me play when I was in my teens. You might have seen her too, you played here occasionally twenty years ago, like you said. We never married, but we’ve always been together. We’ve had time apart, lean periods, she married you. But we always… stayed in touch. And we’ve had two boys. Fine boys…’

‘No,’ Deal said, but the word was stifled at birth. He wanted to ask him where she was now, and Roy spared his breath.

‘She left me,’ he said. ‘But I brought her home, where she belongs. She won’t leave me again. And to press the point home, I’ve been catching up with every cunt who ever dipped his nib in her inkwell since then. A fair few, I can tell you. Fivesy was the latest. She can read all about them, if I hold the newspaper steady over her face.’

‘You’re mad,’ Deal said.

‘No. Not mad. I don’t get mad. I get even.’

Figures growing, approaching out of the smog that enveloped the allotments.

Deal said, ‘I don’t want to end up like Fives.’ He was afraid that Roy had not heard. But then, as the figures came closer, and crowded out the last of the light, Roy leaned in to him.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said, and his smell was her smell, tumbling over him as it had at the start, when she smiled up at him and said yes. Roy said: ‘Don’t worry. You deserve better than that.’

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