Beautiful Game Brought Low
Short short-story (983 words)
When United gave away the second goal Taylor’s treble voice died away and enthusiasm turned to fractiousness. He kicked the seat in front – happily unoccupied – and looked away from the pitch. She’d have bought him a burger if the price hadn’t been beyond her. At half-time Tom Ablett, ghosting for United’s recently fired manager, stood up and stretched. Called to her, “Eigh up, Dainty. At least you're seeing it from t’alfway line.”
“Employee’s privilege,” she said, glancing along the empty rows.
After the game Taylor wanted to be away, leaving the sadness behind. But the takings had to be counted and signed for. While he sat writhing on the other chair in her tiny office she did the paperwork. Handling twenty-pound notes was ironic: just one of them – a fraction of what she was owed - would have transformed the rest of her week-end. But the visiting accountant had been strict: “You more than anyone should understand, Mrs Palfrey.”
Understand about administration, of course. She’d been the only one left capable of abiding by the rules. Tom Ablett, thirty years ago a player and now an odd-job man, had simply scratched his head. Thus she, Dainty Palfrey, would ensure the HMRC got whatever was left of United’s carcase. While she…
It was dark when she locked the outside door but Kendrick was waiting patiently, sitting in his aged TVR. Knowing it would be a blank evening for him but that a car ride would smooth out her awkward journey home via the bank.
“Let the bairn sit in front,” he said as she opened the door. Proof that Kendrick’s feelings for her were often expressed in different ways.
In the passenger’s seat Taylor’s moodiness vanished; Kendrick belonged to United’s glory days, the year they’d just failed to rise from the second to the first division. Everyone agreed: the one player who’d worked his damndest to prevent the slow slide into the Conference. Taylor’s hero.
“A puir wee game,” Kendrick said.
“You stuffed their striker,” said Taylor.
Kendrick laughed. “For half a game mayhap. Second half was something else. Age twenty-one outrunning age thirty-eight.”
The centre of town was deserted and Kendrick stopped the car close to the bank. Dainty slid the satchel down the deposit chute then squeezed herself back into the shelf-like rear seat, her face a mere foot behind his close-cut crinkly hair. Ah the maleness of it.
“It’ll be just cheese and toast if you…”
“That’s awfu’ kind, Dainty,” he said. “But A’m promised to a bunch of low-lifes at The Baron of Beef.”
Untrue of course. And he must have known she knew. United’s books had him playing for expenses only. Sharing a bed-sitter with the goalie. Now saving her two rounds of cheese and toast.
Only as they said good-night did the jaunty Borders accent flag. “Ye’ll be in the office next week, A’ take it?”
“Ye need another job. Ye canna live on air. You and the bairn.”
“The funny thing is I don’t really care for football. Yet after three years there’s this strange loyalty. And there’s Taylor. It’s one thing he can boast about – his mum works for United.”
Why was she explaining? Keeping him standing here? Both of them near outcasts.
With Taylor in bed she watched an Italian film about a single mother trying to stay afloat in Naples. The emphasis was on squalor, the woman’s hair greasy and unkempt. Was this a measure of poverty? The point at which one ceased to wash one’s hair? When a blue-jawed lorry driver entered the story Dainty switched off. The man carried a knife and there could only be one ending.
On Tuesday she received the modest monthly cheque from her ex. Mid-morning she walked out of the office and on to the pitch where Kendrick and half a dozen unpaid others were engaged in desultory training. “Let’s have dinner out,” she said, explaining the cheque. “You know the town better than I do. Pick a place.” His face seemed blank.
He was waiting outside M&S and escorted her to the town’s only touristy pub; dark wooden panelling and a plaid carpet. There’d be no dinner she realised. Disappointed she sought minor revenge by ordering an unsociable Coke. Saw that this had registered.
The large circular table divided them, made them look like strangers, casually met. But he was no stranger. “Ye’re a lovely girl,” he said abruptly.
A girl at thirty-two? She said nothing.
“But ye dinna trust me.”
“I’d trust you… with my life. With Taylor, even.”
“Aye, maybe. But not with the future.”
“A’m a futba player. Soon I won’t be. And that’s what ye fear.”
Fear? Something echoed. “What do I fear?”
“A’ played for the school at Hawick. Later Kilmarnock, Dundee. Other teams now forgotten. A’m thirty-eight and United is the finish of it all. A’m not well-known, no more jobs in futba. A’ must look outside.”
“No education.” He grinned fleetingly. “Terrible for a Scot. Terrible for you.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. But she did.
“You think: how can he live without futba? His life. A year on you fancy you see me sad, depressed. Drinking. A Scot’s solution. Is that not true?”
She tried not to move.
“Ye silly lass. Do A’ not know you? The loyalty and a’ that with no pay. And do ye not know me – Dainty Palfrey?”
“I know you, Alan.”
“Aye. That A’d be happy stacking shelves to be with ye and the bairn. Happy, ye understand. Ye’re golden. Forget dinner; hoard your bawbees. Go home with my blessing.”
Outside she laughed. “I booked a babysitter.”
He reached for his wallet and took out a fiver, the last note he had. “Use this.”
She smiled and shook her head. Felt hair swing, shampooed that evening. Keeping squalor at bay.
Walked home. Thought about risks taken with men, risks avoided. Lovely, he’d said. Nice.