Everything east of Jolly’s garage — which to start with was fields and rows of small houses like mine — was under another council’s jurisdiction. Locals said they could hear this gap in the accent but they couldn’t. The midway point was farther than I was supposed to go as a young teenager, but back then I couldn’t see the harm in it.
There was barely anybody around, and anyhow, Nevil lived not five minutes’ bicycle ride from Jolly’s. High in an aspen, I was stationed as a recon officer in our annual territorial water-fight. I had binoculars, a bucket of bombs, a walkie-talkie, and a cricket stump secreted in my belt loops (if I were to find my enemy’s hiding place, their projectiles would be toast). In an instant, I was introduced to Nevil when a swollen balloon, which arched like a planet in front of the sun, caught me, preoccupied, square in the gob, transferring its capacity to explode to my top lip. I could never remember the fall from the aspen, but the scar on my knee would come to remind me of that 12d nail being removed. Still, that’s how you take out the watch-tower, he gloated. And your leg looks hideous.
I still have the football stickers that Nevil’s mother gave me to goad me calm; I still have #8, DeFreitas, my favourite striker, with only the faintest trace of rusted blood on its edges. I still have the scar, too.
It’s how I knew we would be friends. Football. We supported different teams, as was the way of things. But it didn’t so much matter. Nevil was inbred and I was a pigfucker, in the rites of the chants, at least. Your Mum’s your Dad, your Dad’s your Mum, you’re interbred… so it went, the chant to deride Nevil and his village, though it never actually made much sense to me. That would make Nevil the son of transsexuals, maybe, but not inbred. It was best not to tell him that, I thought. Inbred scum.
Twice a year — and that year, with my team’s scalp-taking cup run, four times — our teams would do battle, like Megazord against, like, some sewage monster, inbred, a great stinking inbred molasses. It was after much careful negotiation, household favours, and some inventive lying, that we, Nevil and I, bescarfed, were allowed, on condition of many prior visits to my grandparents, to go to that vaunted match: a Saturday, a semi-final, a sell-out.
The town’s bus station was at the top of the hill with a view over everything: you could pick out where I lived, where Nevil lived, the encompassing heights of Rivington, and down the hill, straight ahead, yawning like a portal to the centre of the Earth, the stadium. Laid out either side of the high street were Tudor facades with Ye Olde lettering. A Post office, a cobblers and key cutters, a pub. The Earl of Derby was dragged out of here by Cromwell’s cronies, my father would say. They chopped his head off in the street outside. He was a Royalist, you see. Your mother is totally fine with the drinking, but best not to mention it. It’s time you learned to keep home games for you. You can be yourself. His head came off just over there near the flowerbed.
Older boys would stand in groups with their arms wide, chanting words I couldn’t discern. I remember reading that if you chopped up any given spoken sentence into its component parts, and played back each segment in isolation, you’d only be able to identify half of the sounds as words. I think that must have been it, the reason for my difficulty. I must have missed something. Besides, my father said he didn’t know those chants either.
Naturally, Nevil and I were supposed to sit in different ends — Nevil in the away section; I in the home. But another precondition of our being able to attend was our sticking together, our promise to look after one another, and most importantly the wearing of neutral colours. I decided against this stupid advice. This was the semi-final, televised. Additionally, I was in the majority, to the tune of 25,000 fans, and I, myself, at great effort and expense, had ironed the letters on the back of my replica kit. D-E-F-R-E-I-T-A-S at £3.50 per letter. Not a chance I was wasting that.
In the home end, Nevil wore white to blend in, though he couldn’t bring himself to don the badge. It’s a white tee or I’m going head-to-toe in blue and white stripes, he said. I’m not a bleeding traitor. That would have to do, I thought, thrilled at his compromise. Colours are everything, after all. They say teams who wear red have a fierceness about them, a fury. It has to do with anger and energy and determination. Blue is cool, sort of kingly, distant, monumental. It was strange: I never really could tell what wearing white said about us. The kits were harder to clean and boasted their grass stains like medals, but that couldn’t have been it — a sort of canvas of hard work. It wasn’t quite enough. There was one thing, though. When you saw a few thousand people stand all at once to celebrate a goal, or throw their fists to dispute a linesman, or applaud as a fallen idol made his way off the pitch on a stretcher, it was as if the Sun agreed with us, as if the ground had exploded with light. There was just something right about it all. At least it wasn’t bloody stripes. Teams who wear stripes can’t make their damned mind up, my father would say.
After an hour had passed, half among us were stood, pleading, stand up, the club needs you, who are we, who are we. A tall man on the row in front, an apparition, gazed on, swaying in disbelief. With his elbows excavating gorges in his knees, and four long fingers pressed against each shelf-like cheekbone, he turned to Nevil and mumbled some fricative, shook his head and returned his dead gaze.
Pretty— pretty embarrassing, eh. Nevil dug his fist into my side.
Half of us were stood, pleading, stand up, the club needs you. Who are we, who are we, who are we. But Nevil remained seated. Smiling to himself. Mockingly tapping my hands with his, knowing I couldn’t react. He had a man’s hands, I thought: dry and wide and strange. They certainly didn’t look like they should belong to a pudgy kid like Nevil — they were if anything reminiscent of my father’s.
My father had big hands because he worked in manufacturing. He made concrete raker beams for most of the new stadiums in the north of England, and when they were craned into place, he built the terraces upon them. That meant lots of heavy lifting, lots of concrete floors, steps, walls, pillars, all to be moved and set into place. All that concrete was bloody ugly, but better than the railway sleepers, my father would say, better than those little wet steps that had led to the deaths of thirty-four people because somebody slipped one day and caused a crush. Anything was better than that, even endless vacant grey blocks; in the hands of responsible builders like my father, no such incident would happen again.
His hands were so big, his fat caveman fingers so strong, that he said he could break mine, that he could split my palms right down the middle if he wanted to. He once insisted I learn how to administer a “thumb-hold”, just in case I were attacked. It doesn’t matter how big you are. Anyone can do it. Anyone strong enough to wrench the arm of a grown man up behind his back. I’d seen him do it once, to a teenager he’d caught peering through our living room window. He pulled the guy’s shoulder from its socket in the process, but it was the thumb-hold that made him scream until the entire street was awake and stood supportively on their doorsteps. In real life, you have to be decisive like that. In real life, that sort of strength can be the difference.
In real life, men who can use their bodies to fight for what they care about are lionised. But in a football stadium, the shock of violence, real violence, ruptures something — for the whole game is a thing of artifice. Ploys, manipulations, inseminations of shapes into solid shapes to build spaces. Diagonals, triangles, diamonds; square!, line!, box! When things boil over on the pitch, it’s foreheads pressed against receptive foreheads, choice words, sneers, sarcasm. A halfhearted push to the chest. A heroic clutch of the face, a roll, an appeal, a wink. The self-rectifying limp. Opera. Pantomime.
It only exists within those white lines.
So the shock of real violence ruptures something because it doesn’t belong on a stage.
Seventy-five minutes gone and something happens. In the stand opposite, small pockets of the crowd fold in on themselves as stewards race up towards them from their pitch-side stools. Over Nevil’s shoulder the tall man had grown into some unearthly rallying force, looking all about him, gesturing at the scoreboard where a “0” supplicated itself before a “4”. Nevil passed me his matchday programme in which he had circled the initials of each word on the This Week’s Away Team page, and had drawn an arrow pointing at me beneath. I threw it back at him, the inbred horse. Shite joke. The tall man behind him screeched as he thrust his open palms up into the air again and again. He was incoherent, yes, but convincing in his way. Sort of mesmerising. A real spectacle. Brave and all on his own, giving all his besmirched, traumatised allegiance to the cause.
Here you can be yourself.
Who are we.
Something else happened, and the away fans let out another distant roar, enlivening an atmosphere now devoid of competitive tension. Families mostly dressed in white nattered with one another, discussed the car park, getting away in plenty of time: next time you can plan the weekend, we’ll do whatever you please, I just hope young’un will be alright, bless him, we’ll go when you’re ready, okay, alright, excuse me, apologies, bad do, a bloody bad do. Nevil turned to me, shrugged abashedly, then looked over towards his team’s fifth performance of choreographed celebrations. He smiled, shrugged again. Sucked the venom from his bottom lip. The tall man saw, and ducked the railing.
Nevil said nothing but was pulled to his feet.
The stadium isn’t there anymore — it’s an Asda or a Hobbycraft or something. In recent years, after several exposés detailing the club’s historical financial mismanagement, the owner fled to Jersey to continue his industrial property dealings. He looks like the sort of guy who could tolerate living in Jersey. Outside the supermarket stands a small shelter with B4 vinyled onto the plexiglass. Errant trolleys are returned there from the car park by men in fluorescent jackets. They are locked into each other by short chains. A yellow railing stops them rolling away.
Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer based in Manchester, UK, and Founding Editor of iiii Magazine. He writes (mostly) about stand-up comedy, literature, and the Moon — so inevitably things are going well. Find his self-conscious burblings here and some of his writing here.