Who's Who 16: The Second Half

Loose lips. Clenched fists. Raised voices. Raised to the rafters and tattered flags. Raised to the antique ads and the framed, signed shirts kept behind glass. Break in case of hero worship. I’m here looking for a crooked little voice that used to whisper from my shoulder. I’m pretty sure I left it in this room.

The man on the screen is running with the ball, dodging past the warps and scuffs. His team have suddenly woken up. Which is unfortunate for the rest of us.

The crowds are a blur. Faceless, formless. A Greek chorus turned raucous. A mythical beast, born with many heads, blossoming arms in the background. Their cheers drown out the commentators as the man keeps on running.

You can hear the accent in his impending victory. The tide has changed before our very eyes.

Where we’re sitting, far from the bar and further from the toilets, the walls are closing in. There are so many people here. People as far as you can see. People as far as you can smell.

Later, a bouncer clutching a coffee will tell me he’s been turning people away. I can’t help but think of the ark, or is it the stable? (This is as I stand in the rain, shivering in my boots, but sweating through my clothes.)

We came two by two, I think, but there was no room at the inn.

Last year, I left alone. Before the snow stranded me in the wrong bed.

From the table, it all looks like some fractious, fractal puzzle. A jigsaw of limbs and drinks. Teeth and chants. Everyone screaming their opinions as if they believe their support can permeate the screen and bulls-eye directly into the ear of the player they love the most.

This is worship in a giddy, sticky floored church. Idolisation of a man wearing the same shirt as you.

Behind me, there’s a guy who’s been comatose for hours. His home game t shirt straining to hold him upright. His head slumped. His hand limply clinging to the latest pint. He’s been quiet, bar the odd burble. The drain, hidden behind his lips, must be emptying. Either that or maybe I can hear his liver praying.

His whole table is a selection box of midlife crisis flavours. The older men clinging to the younger men. The younger men trying to pretend they’re still boys. It’s mutually assured deception.

The dyed brown hair with all the colour and reality of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. The jokes told a little too loud and proud, just to show they can be offensive once the kids aren’t underfoot.

As the drinks flow faster, wives are cursed. Jobs are dissected. Politics bobs to the surface. All the time, as they cosplay youth, they keep their big friend topped up. Their mascot. His hair so blonde he could be an action figure. His waist making me believe that maybe everyone is right, maybe I have lost weight.

Then the player on the screen scores and the celebrations accelerate to bloodthirsty in breath-taking speed. Swaying bodies are driven to unstable feet. Arms are thrown high. Drinks are thrown higher. It rains ale in some corners.

The divides being drawn on maps beyond our pub are starting to show in here. Backstops. Back peddling. Back biting. The drink has kicked the brakes off without us even noticing.

Suddenly the big lad behind me stands. No, not stands. He bolts to his feet and screams. Screams in absolute celebration. It’s a war cry. It stops the room in its tracks, for a breath or two. Before his table of painted clowns join in and the bar staff exchange worried looks. Inaction Man is inactive no more.

He turns, surveying the room. Arms aloft. Hands made into fists. A pint glass cracking under the pressure of thick fingers, blood trailing down towards a hairy armpit.

His eyes are wide and fierce. His teeth are merely crooked battlements, failing to contain the monstrous roar the world has driven out of him. He’ll feel this in the morning. We all will.

I look round, unsure. He catches my eye and there it is. My old friend. Raging. Steering. Pushing every button. Comfortable in its new home.

The sight of it, plain as day, drives me out the side door. I push into the dark and the rain, where it can’t reach me.

I watch the rest of the match through a steamy window and hear him bellowing until we equalise. Ten long minutes later. Although I’m told he disappeared way before the final whistle. Regardless, there would be no cups or trophies for us this year.