Pretty bubbles in the air

4,184 words – approx. 14 minutes

“How old’s the lad now?” Col jerked a thumb at Davey to his right.

“Twelve.”

“Twelve, eh?” said Col in wonderment. “I remember when you were so big,” he said, addressing Davey, and he spread his hand face down, level with the bench they were sat on.

“He ain’t much bigger now,” said his dad. “But you will be, won’t you? You’ll be big and strong, like your old man.”

It was the first warm day of the year, a Saturday, and they were sat out the front of the Bricklayer’s Arms. Davey liked it here because his dad was a bricklayer, and he could pretend the pub was named after him. The sleeve of his dad’s t-shirt had ridden up to reveal the bottom half of his tattoo, an inked ribbon with W.H.U.F.C. printed on it. He hadn’t worn his West Ham shirt like Davey, but he had his tattoo. That was always there.

Mick came out of the pub carrying four glasses. It looked like at any moment one might slip from his hands and smash and spill onto the ground, but he used the ridge of his stomach to steady them. He reached the table safely and set them down with a grunt.

“Cheers. Just saying, Mick, Davey’s twelve now,” said Col, taking his beer. Davey tried furiously not to turn red – this was a lot of attention.

“A little twelve-year-old solder,” said Mick.

“Future soldier,” corrected Davey’s dad. “I’m not having him come home to his mum with a mashed-in face.”

“As if he would, he’d be a scrapper.” Mick smiled at Davey. His mouth reminded Davey of a piano, apart from the flashing gold tooth just to the left of the top row of teeth. Davey smiled back, but he didn’t know what to say to this. He was spared having to answer by his dad handing him a fizzing glass of Coca-Cola. “Don’t tell your mum,” he said, and ruffled Davey’s hair. It felt strange when he took his hand away, like the hair might be sticking up, but Davey didn’t pat it down.

There was a silence as the three men took the first mouthfuls of their beers, then as if they’d had a signal they angled themselves in a little, making a sort of triangle and leaving Davey on his own with his glass. He sucked at the straw, and felt the almost painful tingling spread through his lower jaw. The sky was perfectly clear and the sun warmed the back of his neck. Davey was glad he wasn’t in school today. He suddenly felt very grown-up, even though his Coke had a straw.

He looked at his watch. It was digital, a Christmas present. It was 13:00. Two hours until kick-off.

As the men talked quietly, Davey counted backwards in his head. It was five, no, six hours since he’d woken up. As early as on a school day, but far more excited. He’d charged downstairs to where his mum was buttering toast. His dad had still been in bed.

Dad hadn’t taken him to the football in ages – that was why he was so excited. He usually went with Gary’s dad, which was alright because him and Gary were mates, but Gary’s dad was boring. It always seemed to rain when he took them, and he’d always say the same thing, blaming the Met Orifice. Gary’s dad thought that was funny. He wasn’t like Davey’s dad.

Out of the corner of his eye Davey could see his dad looking from Col to Mick, then back again. He was talking quickly and moving his hands a lot like he was saying something very important. Col and Mick were nodding, but Davey couldn’t make out any words, only the low rustle of his dad’s voice. Whatever he was saying he didn’t want Davey to hear, because at one point he tapped his hands on the table and nodded slightly towards Davey to show Col and Mick why he’d stopped. Davey looked up into the sky, trying hard to shut out any sound from his ears. If he’d been with Gary and his dad it would be raining, he was sure, but that seemed impossible today. Above him he could see the thin, flat, black ‘w’ of a bird. He followed it as it moved across the blue sheet of sky, until it went too near the sun and Davey had to look away, even though he was shielding his eyes with his hand like it was the peak of a sunhat.

His dad had stopped talking now, and Mick and Col were talking louder. There was something about the way they were talking, like they were in private, that meant he knew these were things and words he shouldn’t repeat.

Suddenly his dad dropped his voice and said something Davey couldn’t hear. Col and Mick laughed, and Davey’s dad rolled his huge shoulders forward. As he did, a young woman with frizzy blonde hair swung past them.

“Wouldn’t mind doing some violence on her,” said Col. Davey couldn’t tell if the woman had heard, but he thought he saw her back stiffen. She sat down on her own a few tables away.

“Twist her tit.”

“As if you’d get her.”

“Get out, I’d get her any day of the week.”

“Go on then, let’s see it.”

“Nah,” Mick shook his head.

“She’s only over there, go over and talk to her.”

“Nah,” said Mick again. “I’ll wait ‘til she’s walking home tonight.” Laughter.

“C’mon lads, focus,” said Davey’s dad with a smile. “There’s things to do first. My round. Another Coke, Davey?”

Mick went with Davey’s dad to help carry the drinks, and Davey was left outside with Col.

“Alright big man?” asked Col. Davey hated being called that – it reminded him how short and skinny he was. If he really was a big man no-one would call him that. No-one called his dad big man.

Col didn’t seem to know what to say to him. He blew out through his mouth so his lips wobbled and made a rasping sound. Mick was fat and Davey’s dad was muscle, but Col was wiry. He looked like a slab of concrete, flat but very solid.

“Take a look at this.” Col pushed something over the table to Davey. It must have been on the table for a while, because the plastic was hot, although Davey hadn’t noticed it. The sun glinted off its surface and made purple shapes float across Davey’s eyes. “It’s a Walkman, you want to listen to something?” He pressed a button and Davey could hear a distant, muffled noise, like waves at the beach. But instead of letting Davey have the earphones, Col took them for himself and started dancing around like an idiot, still sat down, making Davey laugh.

He was still laughing when his dad and Mick returned with the drinks. Col didn’t notice them at first because he had his eyes shut and kept dancing, which made Davey laugh even harder until he couldn’t breathe. Davey’s dad held his finger to his lips then pulled down hard on the earphones, yanking Col’s head sharply forward.

There was a clatter as Col’s’ body jerked and the earphones flew out onto the table. Col was quick to snatch at what had fallen onto the ground and stuff it back into the pocket of his jeans, but he wasn’t as quick as Davey’s eyes. It was thin and black, with silver bits at both ends. It looked like a knife handle, one of the sharp ones in the knife block, but there was no blade.

Davey’s dad had seen it too.

When Col got back up, Davey’s dad was staring at him with angry eyes. “Thick fuck,” he said. “Do you want to get caught?”

“I was just fucking around, Paul,” Col mumbled. Davey could still hear the distant roar of the headphones, and now his dad looked at them.

“Turn that off. You turn it on again,and I’ll turn it off for you, understand?”

Col looked up at Davey’s dad. “You’d never manage it, fingers like cow’s tits.” But there was a click and the music stopped as he turned the Walkman off anyway. Through his confusion, Davey felt a burn of pride.

No-one spoke for a while; they just drank. Davey’s dad gave Col a long look, but Col was avoiding his gaze. It was Mick who broke the silence.

“So, win for the Hammers today, eh Davey?”

“What’d you bring him for anyway?” Col snapped before Davey could reply, as if he’d been waiting for a cue. It took Davey a few seconds to realise Col meant him, not Mick, and he stared into the bubbles of his Coke, his face reddening. Should he answer Mick? He wanted to cry.

“What’s it to you?”

“It’s not a crèche.”

“He’s twelve.”

“So?”

“So you’ve got to be careful, not throw your shit around where anyone can see it. You let me look after the kid.”

Col rolled his neck, stung. “Yeah, well if you hadn’t been mucking around it wouldn’t have happened.”

“You’ve got to be more careful, Colly,” chided Davey’s dad, tauntingly. “If it hadn’t happened then, it could’ve happened any time. In front of a copper. When you’re charging down the Norwich cunts, and what then?” This was fun now. Davey’s dad sounded like a teacher, and Col was the naughty schoolboy. Col didn’t have any answer and spread his palms in defeat.

Davey blew down the straw into his Coke. He didn’t entirely understand what had happened but it seemed like his dad had won. Whatever danger there had been had passed. In his mind he curled his lip at Col.

All four were quiet now and they drank all the quicker. It was Col’s round next, and when the glasses were drained he just muttered “Same again?” and disappeared inside.

“I don’t think he’s very happy with me,” said Davey’s dad, but as he did so he winked. “Never mind, eh? He knows what’s good for him.” Davey wanted to tell his dad that he was on his side, that he thought Col looked like a big slab of concrete. That’d make him laugh. But his dad was distracted by Mick, who’d put on some sunglasses that were far too big for him, and the lenses stuck out the side of his head.

It was hotter now. Davey felt uncomfortable in his trousers; he wished he’d worn his shorts. The heat was making him thirsty, and he was glad when Col came back. Not for his company, not now, but because he brought another Coke with cooling, crunching ice.

It was a bit of a walk to the stadium, and to be there in plenty of time they had to drink quickly. Davey nipped inside to use the toilet before they left the pub, and when he came out Col, his dad, and Denny were leant across the table, heads locked into shoulders and arms grabbing each other’s sides. At first Davey thought maybe they were fighting, and was thinking of ways he could help his dad when they roared and sat back down. None of the other people sat outside had turned around to look at them. Davey could see the beer glasses almost empty now. It looked like they had soap suds in them.

As they got nearer to Upton Park they joined some other fans, then more, then their rivulet merged with greater streams of people to make a flood. West Ham flags, banners and scarves filled the air; Davey could only see a few brave, lone Norwich supporters in their yellow kits. Everything else was claret. He walked at the front of the four of them with his dad; Col and Mick were just behind. It felt good, like he was his dad’s second-in-command.

“Are Norwich any good, dad?”

“Nah, bunch of useless buggers.”

“So we’ll win?”

“We should do, if we keep our heads together.”

“What round are we in if we win?”

“Semis.”

“Who’ll we play then?”

But his dad didn’t answer. They’d reached the ground now. It loomed, castle-like in front of them. Davey’s dad bought him a programme, then went first through the turnstile. Next was Davey. He handed the ticket his dad had bought that Wednesday to the man in the booth, who tore off the little stub and gave Davey back the rest. The turnstile was heavy to begin with, then without warning it swung round, and Davey nearly fell over.

Mick knew the man at the turnstile and stayed talking to him until Davey’s dad shouted at him to hurry up. He had to squeeze himself through the gate; Davey wondered if you could be so fat that you couldn’t go to the football.

There was no time to queue at the bar before kick-off. The stadium was thick with people, its bowels dark and crowded, and Davey had no idea where he was going. He gripped his dad’s hand tightly. Around them people jostled and pushed, and little waves of beer sloshed over his hand. His dad kept moving through this, somehow, and eventually Davey’s foot hit something hard and he stumbled up the first couple of steps, then came out, blinking, into the brilliant sunshine.

The sudden noise made Davey shiver: it felt like all the fans were singing for him. Norwich had brought more than it looked like when they were walking to the stadium, but their patch of yellow was nothing compared to the sea of claret that covered most of the ground.

Some men around them had their shirts off and were displaying large pink stomachs, singing loudly and pointing to the sky. Davey wanted to take off his shirt, but he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to; and besides, his flat, skinny little chest would look pathetic next to these great big men. His dad hadn’t taken his shirt off anyway. He was singing and clapping his hands above his head. Bubbles caught the light as they floated through the air. The whole world seemed to be singing.

Then the song changed. No-one announced this; it was as if there had been some secret signal that Davey hadn’t heard. The crowd was pointing across the pitch now, to the huddled ranks of opposing fans. They looked smaller than ever. Davey couldn’t tell what they were singing, but it was low and came in bursts. Like the sound of twenty thousand arrows being released from bows. Like a war-cry. His shoulders tingled.

He could see the policemen down the front, little men in bright jackets. He felt sorry for them, having to stand facing the crowd like that and not be able to see any of the game. They looked tiny compared to the masses. If everyone rushed down onto the pitch, like he’d seen on TV, they surely couldn’t do anything about it, even though they were the police. He wondered if that would happen today.

A great wave of a cheer broke over their side of the ground as the teams came out. The West Ham players were out first, jogging easily, applauding. The Norwich players were more subdued, giving grim-faced claps to their fans then walking out onto the pitch. Davey turned the pages of his programme hurriedly, and listened intently for the announcement of the teams, ticking each name off the back of the programme with the pen he’d brought in his pocket just for this.

Norwich kicked off, left to right as Davey saw. That was good – it meant he’d see any goals the Hammers scored this half. He had to stand on his tiptoes to see the pitch; he couldn’t very well ask his dad to put him on his shoulders, not now he was twelve.

But even standing on tiptoes wasn’t much use. Davey thought about trying to work his way down to the front. He could get in between people easily enough, he was good at that. Even when people looked tightly packed together you could find gaps, and if you were small enough you could get an arm or a leg through that gap, then they had to let you through. But then he wouldn’t be able to see his dad, and what if there was a pitch invasion? He might lose him. No, he decided. Better to stay.

Anyway, he could tell what was happening by the sounds people made. He could hear the collective intake of breath, and from the way the forest of heads turned he knew which end the excitement – or danger – was. People would shout, too, and he could join in. He didn’t need to be able to see the referee to know he was blind, or that the Norwich player on the floor was pretending, trying to get the West Ham man sent off. It was better than radio.

“Break his legs!” yelled his dad one time, when it looked like a Norwich player might escape the last defender.

“Yeah go on, break his legs!” shouted Davey, but it came out high and uncertain. His dad patted his shoulder.

After what seemed like no time at all, the referee blew his whistle for half time. Nil nil.

“Christ,” said Col. “What a load of shite that was.”

“They don’t get it,” agreed Davey’s dad. “You’ve got to get down the wings!”

“And that time they had their number 9 free in the area…” said Mick. “Mark the fucker!”

“Ah!” they said in disbelieving union.

“Good job he’s useless,” chuckled Mick.

Davey stood listening. He hadn’t seen much of the match, so couldn’t join in the conversation, but he liked hearing his dad talk about football. Then the three men went down through the tunnel, instructing Davey to wait right where he was. “We’re off for a piss,” explained Mick.

When they came back they’d had more than a piss, if they’d had one at all. Davey could smell the beer, wet and stale on their breath. He didn’t mind, but wondered why they’d not said. They’d drunk in front of him earlier, hadn’t they?

But there was no time to think about that. The second half had started, and he could see the pitch through the gaps left by people returning late from half time. Norwich’s winger was haring down the touchline near them. His dark skin contrasted with the bright yellow of his shirt. He got past the West Ham player, and for an awful, sickening moment it seemed he was away – but then he miscontrolled the ball and it rolled over the touchline for a throw in.

Davey joined in the jeers. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something soaring overhead, falling in a long arc down onto the pitch. A cheer went up.

A banana.

He looked around in surprise to see where it had come from. He was even more surprised to see Mick proudly grinning. “No bins,” he shrugged when he saw Davey looking at him wide-eyed, then laughed. “In case a Paddy has a paddy!” Mick thought this was so funny that he nudged Davey’s dad and Col and repeated it, and they laughed too.

For the rest of the second half Davey didn’t try so hard to work out what was happening. And what was happening wasn’t much, judging from the groans and shouting around him. It didn’t look much like his dad was trying to work out what was happening, either. Even when there were gasps and cheers from the crowd he looked nervous, like he was waiting for something, patting his pockets and shuffling his feet.

They stayed until the final whistle, not like some of the other people around them, who left with a few minutes to go. The crowd had thinned. At the whistle there was some muted applause, but it hadn’t been an exciting game and 0-0 meant a replay. “And at this point in the season,” said Davey’s dad darkly. A buzz of frustration filled the space where there had been singing and chanting earlier.

Leaving the ground took forever. Davey’s legs felt heavy like they did when he had to stand up in church or the start of assembly. He didn’t understand how everyone moved so slowly. There must be someone at the front slowing everyone down, but he couldn’t see anything, even when he craned his neck left and right. Davey pretended he was a tree, lifting his leg slow and heavy. Every step caused an earthquake in miniature. Nobody noticed; even with roots instead of legs, he moved at the same pace as their little shuffles.

Eventually they trickled out of the ground and onto the street, where the crowds could move more freely. When they reached the corner with the fish and chip shop, Davey’s dad put a hand on his shoulder and crouched down. “Right Davey, me Col and Mick have to go to a meeting. You stay here and get some chips, alright?” Davey nodded as his dad pressed some coins into his hand. “Good lad. Wait here.”

The chair Davey sat on was too big for him. He had to lift himself up on it like a gymnast, and his legs swung tantalisingly above the metal bar that was there for them to rest on. His chips were good – crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the inside, and not too hot. He chased some tiny crispy bits around the tray. It was as if they were hiding between boulders made of bigger chips, but he got them in the end. The chip shop was busy but no-one bothered him, even once he’d finished; the man behind the counter with the bushy moustache and the silly hat was too busy with customers wanting a large cod and chips to take away to worry about the small boy on the high stool who was sat with no food and his hands clasped between his knees.

Davey watched the people coming and going. At first there were lots of them, all coming from the match, but it wasn’t long before the scarves and football shirts started to disappear, replaced by a steady stream of families, people off for a Saturday night takeaway. Davey wondered what would be for tea. Usually on a Saturday his mum made sausages, unless he’d gone to the football with Gary’s dad, when they’d get pizza.

Finally his dad came through the door of the chippy. Davey hadn’t even looked up; he’d done that a few times, and every time it had been embarrassing when it wasn’t his dad. One time he even caught the eye of a man – his dad’s height and build – and had to look away quickly so the man knew it was an accident, that he hadn’t meant it.

It wasn’t until he felt the hand on his shoulder that Davey flinched and looked from the menu above the counter to his dad. For a moment his features refused to arrange themselves into that broad, impossibly familiar mould.

“C’mon mate,” said his dad. “Time to go home.”

They walked side by side through the darkening streets. Orange streetlights glowed overhead, casting the world into an unreal sort of shadow. Mick and Col weren’t there; it was just the two of them. How was it, Davey wanted so desperately to ask. He held himself back at first from such a childish inquiry, but the question filled his mind until he couldn’t take it any longer.

“Did you get them dad?” His dad brought him quickly to his side.

“Shh,” he said, and they both scanned the emptied streets, as though spotting a copper would make them safe. All he said after that was “You’re a smart lad.” Davey was sure that this meant he had got them, and he could see his dad now fighting the Norwich cunts. Mick and Col would be behind him, ready to help if needed, but it was Davey’s dad who led the charge. There were more of them, but Davey’s dad wasn’t one to let sheer force of numbers deter him: he roared into them, flying fists, and those that were able to quickly scattered, leaving the ones unfortunate enough to come into contact with him bloodied and lying on the floor.

The delicious meaty smell of sausages met them as they opened the front door. And there was Davey’s mum.

“How was it?” she asked. Davey almost answered: it was amazing. He was ready to spill out the full proud reality of what his dad, Col and Mick had done, to make concrete the mythology that had already flowed from his imagination to something like a memory. But before he could, his dad had replied.

“Draw.”

“Ah, well,” said mum. “Next time, eh?”

Davey gave his mum a quick hug ran through to the kitchen. He could hear her laughing at something, and then the full, heavy footsteps of his dad, and the sizzling spit of the sausages in the pan, almost ready.

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