I get into football in the months after Rick left me. A single mum with two boys, I’m glad for something we can do together. We sit cuddled up together on the settee, watching Match of the Day. I know it’s late for them, but we’re not sleeping, any of us. As ten o’clock waxes into half past, Carl puts his head on my knee and I comb his soft childish hair through my fingers. Ben prods him whenever there’s a goal so he can jump up and cheer.
City is their team – our team. I started off knowing nothing, but I’m learning. When Ben wakes up crying, we chat about the posters of blue-shirted men on his bedroom wall, which is so much better than him asking me, over and over again, when his father’s coming back. I come to recognise the players in the photographs, defenders, midfielders and strikers, who’s good and who’s rubbish. As each weekend approaches, we hold excited discussions about whether City will win, and how many points we have.
The City fixture list is stuck up on the kitchen wall, blue writing on a glossy white background, not too easy to read but I’ve come to know what’s on it without looking. Unable to afford Premiership tickets, we listen on local radio on Saturday afternoons: Ben says he can tell which team has the ball and where they are on the pitch, just by the sound the crowd are making, and now I can too. These days I’m always ironing and I find my hand tightening on the handle as the noise levels rise. Sometimes I stop moving the iron; I’ve burned holes in our clothes this way and I can’t afford to keep buying new, but it’s worth it for that warm feeling that buzzes through your veins when City win. We strut around the house, holding aloft our blue and white-striped scarves and chanting, ‘We’re Cit-y. We’re good. We’re Cit-y. We’re good.’
‘You should get out more, Sally,’ Mum tells me.
Not having worked since the boys were born, I don’t feel confident about getting a job, as my mother is suggesting, but, to keep her happy, I make some applications. I end up becoming a receptionist in Outpatients at the General Hospital, only because the shift finishes just in time for me to do school pickup. My line manager is Lorraine. When I meet her, late on my first morning, after I’ve signed form after form in human resources and endured training on the hospital computer system which made my head go round and round, she greets me without smiling. ‘Welcome to Hell.’
‘Galatasaray,’ I say at once.
She’d been on the point of lifting the hatch to allow me into the area behind the reception counter, but she freezes, holding it halfway up.
‘Sorry.’ How embarrassing. For a moment I forgot I wasn’t chatting to Ben and Carl. ‘Er… Galatasaray is a Turkish football team. ‘Welcome to Hell’ is their strapline.’
‘You like football?’ She lets the hatch drop with a crash. Two elderly patients reading dog-eared magazines raise their heads in shock.
‘It’s just that I’ve got two boys and—’
‘Football is life,’ says Lorraine. She leans forward, her eyes gleaming. ‘I’ve got that on a t-shirt. I’ll bring it in and show you tomorrow.’ Lorraine and I sit around her desk talking football for ages, with City players in bright blue strip looking down on us from their photographs on the wall. Several patients press the buzzer but each time my new boss sends them away. ‘I’m on my break. Clinic doesn’t open until two.’
At fourteen hundred hours on the dot, I’m attempting to check in my first patient, something which takes me ten whole minutes, even with two other colleagues – not Lorraine – looking over my shoulder. I feel like an idiot but I soon get the hang of it and start to enjoy my new role. Mum’s right about me needing to be out and about. We receptionists have lots of laughs, and Lorraine’s one of the girls. I don’t need you, Rick. I’ve got eleven men, fifteen if you count the subs’ bench.
City have had several outstanding seasons. So far this year, our amazing team is unbeaten and I feel great. I think about them all the time, first thing when I wake up in the morning, when I’m making breakfast, when I’m hanging out the washing. Ben’s started secondary school now. I wept when I waved him off on the first day, in his crisp, new uniform, a size too big for him. He gets the school bus, which stops just a few doors away, so he walks back to the house by himself, and Carl’s doing his drama three evenings a week. Ben’s made new friends. They go straight upstairs to play computer games so I hardly see them.
Our divorce is happening at last. I’m sitting in the legal office, struggling to take in all the complicated stuff my solicitor is telling me about when my eyes drift through the window. I blink. Several times. Standing outside the sports shop opposite is Leroy George, City’s top-scoring striker, signing autographs, and from this point my legal advisor’s voice wafts over my head like the clouds above. Leroy, hang in there, please. Wait for me. Ben and Carl will be soooo gobsmacked when I show them your scrawled signature.
England is playing Germany in a friendly on the day my divorce came through. Lorraine comes round and we watch together on television with a bottle of wine.
‘Mum,’ says Ben, the minute she left. England has lost two-one and I’m hoarse after belting out Eng-er-la-and for ninety minutes. ‘Do you have to shout like that?’
‘What’s the problem, Ben?’
‘You should hear yourself.’
‘England was playing. I would’ve thought you’d have wanted to watch too.’
‘I had my friends round, didn’t I? Mum, you’re embarrassing.’
Colin, Lorraine’s husband, a hospital porter, often stops by Outpatients for a chat. ‘How’s herself?’ he asks, tossing a glance over the reception counter to Lorraine’s empty chair. She has so many cigarette breaks, coffee and tea breaks these days.
‘And how’s life treating you, Sally? How are your boys?’
‘Only okay? How old are they now?’
‘Fifteen and thirteen.’
‘Are they being teenagers? Our Amber was awful at that age, but she’s all grown up now. Good job, nice boyfriend.’
I hang on to that conversation all day. Mum says I don’t need to worry about Carl, because he’s got his dramatics, but I miss him being around. I feel so alone in the house. On the few occasions Ben goes out it’s almost a relief, because I don’t have to worry about the taciturn and unresponsive being upstairs on headphones. He says he’s doing his homework but his school reports show otherwise. It’s a struggle even calling him down for meals, because he doesn’t hear. That evening I have, as usual, to tramp upstairs to his room and along the landing.
‘Knock when you come, can’t you?’ This is what he always says.
‘Dinner’ll be ready in five minutes.’
When he does come down, after I’ve been back upstairs twice more, he scowls at the meat and vegetables on his plate. ‘This stuff again?’
I ask him about school. I do try to keep talking to him, but teenage boys just grunt. After eating about half his meal, he pushes away his plate. With him back upstairs, I switch on the telly: City versus Liverpool tonight. At least there’s football. When we score in the first five minutes, I do the usual thing, leaping up from my chair and throwing my arms in the air. I text Lorraine. She texts back. Liverpool hit the bar. Three times. TORTURE, texts Lorraine again. It is. No way is it relaxing. I keep looking at my watch, willing the clock forward. I did that last time I attended a live match. Fifty pounds my ticket in the stand cost and there I was wishing away every second.
Our hospital has had an inspection and not come out well. Now we have new managers, who keep peering behind the reception counter at Lorraine’s empty chair. They send me for training on the new computer system which we is to be ‘rolled out’ in Outpatients next year. I’m trialling it. I’m supposed to show it to the other receptionists, and I do – not to Lorraine though. She doesn’t look or listen. Her daughter’s getting married this August and, every time I glance at her screen, she’s looking up wedding stuff on the internet.
I wish I had a daughter. This morning I found out that Ben had been on his computer all night and never even been to bed. We had the most terrible row. He said he’d go and live with his Dad and girlfriend who ‘talk to me like an adult’ whereas I ‘treat me like a baby’. When I arrive home that evening, Ben’s gone.
‘At least you know where he is,’ says Mum.
‘I’ve tried, Mum. I’ve tried so hard. I watched football with them, took them to matches.’
‘I know, Sally, but maybe he needs his Dad for a while.’
Things are no better at work. Lorraine’s given a warning by the new manager, not before time, I suppose, but, when she returns to the reception counter in floods of tears and screaming expletives in front of the patients, I’m the one who’s expected to lead her away to the ladies to calm her down. I call her husband on my mobile. She grabs the phone from me and screams into it, in a voice as high and shrill as a banshee. ‘I’m going off sick. With stress. For six months, as long as I’ll get full pay.’
Colin says he’ll meet her outside the main door of the hospital.
Lorraine grabs more paper from one of the cubicles and dries her eyes. ‘Anyway I’ve got to do things for this wedding. You’re invited by the way. City’s playing Man U that afternoon. We can’t miss Man U, can we? We’ll just be a bit late for the reception.’
‘Lorraine, you don’t mean—’
‘We’d be all right. The wedding’s at one and it’ll be over at about quarter to two. If we put a wriggle on, we can be at the stadium in fifteen minutes.’ She giggles. ‘Football is life.’
‘No. No, Lorraine, no.’ I shake my head so hard it hurts. ‘You’ve got a lovely husband and daughter. If you’re not careful, life’ll be what happens while you’re doing other things.’ I open the door, to the buzz of the hospital, the grinding sound of trolley wheels, the clink-clink of the tea tray and the hum of conversations bouncing off tiled walls. In hospital sickness is life.
On returning to Outpatients, I’m called by the new manager into his office and asked me to act up in Lorraine’s role. ‘You’ve been here a long time, Sally. You do a good job.’
At least I’m getting something right, I reflect as I walk back home from the bus stop. As I unlock my front door, I spot a familiar, rain-stained schoolbag on the stairs.
Is it? It can’t be. I’m imagining it. Seeing what I want to see.
I look again. ‘B… B…’ I find myself stammering, something I thought I’d grown out of in primary school. ‘B… B… Ben?’
Carl’s voice answers, ‘In the kitchen, Mum.’
Ben and Carl sit opposite one other, each clutching a can of Coke. I want to throw my arms around my prodigal, clasp him to me as I did when he was little, but I don’t. He’s here. I’m not going to wreck things. He says I treat him like a baby, and I’d forgotten how tall he is. I really am not going to wreck things.
I glance at Carl. He nods a tiny nod, an infinitesimal movement for my eyes only.
I turn to Ben and smile. I don’t know what to say. I want him back so much.
Ben’s head is bent down, his eyes glowering at his Coke can. He says nothing. Carl and I say nothing. The humming motor of the fridge roars like a locomotive in my ear. Then even that stops, with a jolt, rattling bottles of milk inside.
Please speak, somebody. The clock reads almost six o’clock. I must start cooking dinner in a minute. ‘Spag bol okay with everybody?’ I find myself saying in an unnaturally cheery voice, as if everything was normal.
‘Yeah,’ says Carl. ‘Love your spag bol, Mum.’ I see him kick his brother’s leg under the table. He’s glaring at him. ‘Say something, you wally.’
Yes, Ben, please. Do say something. I take the onions out the vegetable rack. Thump, thump, they tumble into the sink. One rolls on to the floor next to where Ben’s sitting. I wait for a reaction. I long for a reaction, but he doesn’t seem to see it. After a moment Carl picks it up and hands it to me.
‘I missed you.’
Ben’s voice – at last – startles me, cutting through the silence like the kitchen knife in my hand which I drop it on to the worktop. ‘We missed you, Ben, love.’
‘I really missed you. And Carl. Oh Mum, don’t cry.’
‘I’m… just chopping onions.’
‘They didn’t eat proper meals at Dad’s. It was… There’s the fridge. Help yourself. Nobody was up when I left for school, and nobody said goodnight. They aren’t… a family. Like we are… Mum, please don’t cry. Look, we could go to football on Saturday, if you like. City’s at home to Arsenal.’
If I like?
‘Yeah. That’d be good,’ says Carl. ‘Although I’d have to leave dead on time, because I’ve got to be at the theatre at half five on Saturday evening, haven’t I?’
The onions sizzle in the pan. I watch them turn transparent then brown. ‘You know what? I think we’ll just go to Carl’s play.’