Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Standing tall

The fans had volunteered to clear the pitch so the game could go ahead. Now the snow was piled up all round the edges and if you squinted a bit, it looked like the pictures of mountains in his Dad's atlas. When one of the players came to the side to pick up the ball, Jamie saw him as a giant, taking huge steps across the snow-capped alps.

Bank Holiday Monday, the last day of the Christmas holidays, the last day before going back to school. It was a good crowd, considering. Men and boys everywhere, all in shades of black and blue, faded jeans and padded jackets, their shapes indistinguishable under the thick layers. They stood in groups, hands deep in pockets, stamping their feet against the cold.

Not many women here today, just the few who came every week. Jamie looked quickly across to the stand, where his Nan and Grandad sat. They'd been bringing him to football for years and years, ever since his little brother was born. He used to sit with them, waiting for Nan to share out the drinks and crisps she'd brought along. Nowadays he'd rather buy a coke from the burger stand. Nowadays his Nan took a cushion and a blanket with her to protect against the cold and the hard seats.

Maybe he should have gone back to sit with them at half time.

Here behind the goal there was a group of boys his own age - or at least he thought so. He was head and shoulders taller than most of them, but then he was taller than all the lads in his class as well; it was a long time since he'd stood up straight. It was easier to blend in here where nobody really stood up properly - some of the boys were bent over the advertising hoardings that surrounded the pitch, banging out a rhythm to accompany each goal kick; others stood hunched in groups, curling in on themselves to keep out the cold.

Jamie watched the game playing out in front of him, as the lead changed from one side to the other, as chances were missed then taken, as tackles became more desperate, and the referee's whistle grew more shrill. Behind him he could sense the tension mounting.

He looked over his shoulder, saw scowling faces, heads shaken from side to side. He'd already heard people swear at the linesman, call the referee all kinds of useless. The fans at the other end had started chanting and he knew it wouldn't be long before the men behind him responded. He didn't mind so much when they just shouted back at the fans, it wasn't directed at anyone in particular, but he hated it when they started on the opposition goalie in front of them. The poor man who had to stand there on his own throughout the game, the one who, if he did his job well would become the butt of everyone's anger,  who if he did his job badly would be laughed at and ridiculed. Throughout the game, the goalie had to stand there, pretending not to hear, trying not to react to the shouts that would start off by doubting his ability to catch the ball, then quickly move on to him being too fat, too slow, or too stupid. Jamie knew what that felt like.

He waited. Like the game in front of him, the mood behind the goal could go either way. He waited and hoped for the one brave man who would risk pride and reputation by launching into the song they all knew. Could he dare to try it himself? Would he be left as a foolish lone voice, wishing the ground would swallow him up. Or might he be rewarded with that brilliant moment when one, then another, picked up the song as it rolled along the terrace in a wave of sound. Not a humble embarrassed muttering, but a fierce loud roar of a song. A song you'd be proud to join in with.

But he'd need to know when to stop as well, he'd hate to be the one who carried on singing once the others had finished, risking that confidence sapping chorus of  'On your own, on your own, on your own', and the smirking faces behind him.

The ball had gone out for a corner. Jamie looked at his watch, then glanced behind him again. All eyes were on the players filling the box, jostling for position, trying to make some space for a free header. Nobody was looking at him, if he began singing now, they probably wouldn't even know it was him who'd started it.

He looked at his watch again, only five minutes of normal time left, this was probably the last decent chance of the game. He could do it, he could do it now. He stood up, squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.

But then, as he opened his mouth, from somewhere just behind him came the loud, confident chant,

'Walking down the Mason's Hill, to see the Bromley Aces....'

It didn't matter. It really didn't matter.

He looked across to the stand. Perhaps he'd walk round to sit with Nan and Grandad, watch the end of the game with them.


Sally-Sal said...

I had to read this over twice, to make sure I didn't miss a single word.

I don't know how you do it, how you build the story up, build, build, build, and then when someone else sang that song, I felt my heart just drop. Because the worst thing in the world is to judge your own actions, before you've even done them, to try to plan for every eventuality. For every misstep.

And you captured it perfectly.

caterpillar said...

You're a genius....!

Sharon Longworth said...

Sal, thank you for leaving this comment - very much appreciated.

I had a long conversation with Philip after I'd published this. He absolutely hates the ending and couldn't understand why I'd build the story up and then just disappoint people. I've tried re-writing it so that the boy does lead the singing at the end, but struggled to do so in a way that didn't feel too twee or clich├ęd.

I guess that's the thing about trying to write - sometimes it's just difficult and you don't get it right.

So maybe, I shouldn't have put it out there, but hopefully, one of the good things about a blog is that people will let me know in their comments what works and what doesn't, so I'd really appreciate any other thoughts on this.

Caterpillar - that is so kind - and just the sort of confidence boost I needed - thank you!

loveable_homebody said...

Interesting observation about posture. I hadn't thought of it as a kind of trend, or from peer pressure, or whatever. Nice writing.

Penny Dreadful said...

I really liked this, and I like the ending too (not because I am a meanie, because the way the other voice breaks in at the critical moment is perfect). I do like reading introspective bloggers, but it is really refreshing to read something fictional. It is quite a leap from talking about yourself to empathising so strongly with another character, and I thought this was great.

light208 said...

I love this. I like the build up and I even like the ending - if nothing else because I'm optimistically hoping that next time he wouldn't worry so much about it.
You continue to raise the bar.

The Idiot Gardener said...

Good ending. I think sometimes the disappointment of life is more acceptable; we don't want happy endings all of the time. Indeed, often we don't want endings. Whenever I write fiction I tend to just let the story stop. In reality, how often are things tied up neatly and ended without doubt?

As an aside, when I first started going to football, I was always somewhat amazed by the way songs and chants started and ended. I eventually found out how it all happened when I was old enough to drink before games!

Sally-Sal said...

The thing is, I thought it did work. I think the thing that made this story so beautifully poignant was the ending. It tugged at my heart.

If you'd gone for the happy ending, I don't think it would've been as appealing, it wouldn't have finished as strong as it did.

The way you effortlessly raised those feelings in the reader about nerving yourself up to do something, and then that disappointment we've all felt at one time or another, when things take a different turn...

The ending you chose was the right ending. The only ending a remarkable story like this could have.

To do it any differently wouldn't do it justice.

Philip said...

I thought this was great. Then my heart plummeted. Don't get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the quality of the writing. It's a criticism of the decision making. This, as it is, is great, and totally captured me. But the character was then dropped to failure in the blink of an eye. He could have had the failure, the anxiety, and the pain, and THEN the redemption. The glow of success. We could have seen him through. Not in a cheesy way. Talk me through, drop me then pick me up again. Or just leave it hanging. But don't just drop me. In my view its a cracking bit of work that could have hit higher. I hope you take this in the spirit its meant. As you said, I think its really healthy for us to discuss bits of writing in this way.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that your ending made the alternative one(and whatever it entails and implies)matter more. I think that all of your readers' hearts plummeted, if I may use Philip's expression, and that very fact is what kept me at least reflecting on the case things would have been differently-in the story and in my life. And you did it so finely.
Your texts are in generally really "elegant".

Shopgirl said...

There are several, no many, similar moments in my life where I was the Jamie in this story, where I over analyzed things by just a step or a hair and someone else snapped the opportunity. I wouldn't like the alternate story nearly as much, as I don't tend to remember the moments when I hit the right cords (much as I try, seeing as the name of my blog is just that), but in human nature I remember the moments I missed. Then I over analyze it some more. I am finally realizing that, in fact, is what inspires me to write. The failures, the over analyzing mind, the inability to let that go until it's words on paper.

So, I think this is brilliant.

But I do also love hearing the difference in opinion so bravo for encouraging all the voices.

Jane said...

I wanted Jamie to start the singing too and felt disappointed when he didn't but the ending is very real and rings true for me and my own life.

Happy Frog and I said...

I really enjoyed this piece of writing. I can see what Philip is saying, but it worked for me. I don't think it would have caught my attention as much if you had changed the ending and/or increased the length of the piece.

Mr London Street said...

I like the story an awful lot, but I think you could have ended it this way without necessarily giving people such a despondent feeling. Because the thing is, he's right - it doesn't matter. What matters is that he was about to do it. Maybe next time he will be the one to start the song. Not like me to see the positives, but there you are.

Bth said...

I feel that the ending, as it is, is what made this piece of writing so poignant. I imagined that maybe for the whole of his life, people had been taking the words out of his mouth. The fact he was going to shout this time, was important. You had my attention immediately - the way you built it up was great. Lovely post!

Sharon Longworth said...

My enormous thanks to all of you who took the time to read this story and leave a comment telling me what you think. There's so much here for me to try and understand - about the effects I might create and the impact on different readers.

Sally-Sal, I'm hugely grateful to you for starting the debate, and then coming back and chipping in again.

Loveable homebody - I spent most of my teenage years and early married life not standing up straight - so I know only too well how posture can be used to try and fit it.

Penny - thank you. the fictional pieces I write never get as many comments as the reflective ones. I'm trying to work out if that is about the writing itself, or about the reasons people come to read blogs.

Light 208 - thank you! I'm so pleased that it captured you enough to think of a next time for the boy.

Sharon Longworth said...

IG - thank you. I too like the idea of just letting a story stop. I'd love to read some of your fiction, do you post it up on your blog?

Philip - your comments are absolutely valued and taken in the spirit they were intended. I'm naturally disappointed that I didn't quite do it for you this time - but that won't stop me trying to get it better next time round.

Simone - thank you. I'm enormously flattered by your comment - 'elegant' is such a nice term to use.

Shopgirl - I too am one of life's 'over-analysers'. Thank you for your kind comments - and I'm glad you're enjoying the debate as much as I am.

Sharon Longworth said...

Jane - thank you. I wanted it to ring true, so I'm very glad it did for you.

Happy Frog - I'm so glad - not only that it caught your attention, but that you enjoyed it as well - thank you.

MLS - I seem to spend a lot of time wondering what you'll think of each thing I write, so I'm glad that you commented here in such a constructive and helpful way. I think you're right that I could have implied an alternative future, without necessarily changing the ending - thank you.

Bth - I can't tell you how pleased I am if people take a bit of my writing and think about it - thank you so much.