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Jan/Feb 2006 Fiction Special Feature

Footballers

by Fleur Chapman


(THIRD PLACE WINNER)

I am old, and today I feel older, and my grandad is long gone, lost to the war, the one they called Great.

He should never have been there, didn't have to be, didn't need to be, but there was ugly talk, white feathers, scandal brewing.

The newspapers fed on it, called them shirkers, cowards. They were not. Just boys, boys with a gift, heads full of dreams, magic at their feet.

Just footballers.

But the pointing finger--your country needs YOU--hit home hard as the gossip and slander, till the thrill of Saturday afternoons was tainted, the green of the pitch a mockery of some foreign field, or battlefield.

Then the whole of the Hearts team joined up, the first of the sporting battalion, and Grandad, born to the sound of Bow Bells, took the train up north and signed up.

His ma packed him off with a kiss and a sandwich wrapped in brown paper, said "Bye, Tom love," the last time he was ever called that name.

Tam he became, Tam the swift, Tam the brave, Tam the joker. Tam who was all things to all men. They loved each other, those men, and because he was different, maybe, they loved him more.

So today I stand under grey skies, waiting. Waiting for the first mournful hum, a piper leading a solemn line of men over the hilltop. There's a cairn draped in flags. It looks magnificent, and a crowd of French villagers stand, talking quietly.

I might think it all glorious, if I hadn't read the letters. The letters his mate Jock sent home till he, too, was cut down, scythed like chaff.

There was a piper then, too, see? This lad Kenny McBride sent them over the top to "The Argyllshire Gathering," then they were away, scrambling over the edge, and at first all they felt was this fantastic freedom after days cooped up in the stinking trenches.

It felt so strange, Jock said, that some of the boys stood there blinking, breathing in lungfuls of pure fresh air, till the RSM came up behind them, bellowing, "Run ye wee fuckers, run, run."

So they ran. It was what they had trained for. And Jock wrote how he thought, "This pitch is keech." But they'd played on worse in drech and sleet, winter nights in Aberdeen, so they ran like a line of good, brave forwards, closing down on goal.

He could see them falling around him, his teammates, and he knew this was wrong. How can we score? he thought, then... where is the goal?

He turned to his right and saw my grandad. "Tam, pal, where is the goal?" he said, and Grandad's reply was a smile and a finger pointing ahead--"Just a little further, Jocky."

Tam played out on the wing, and he danced through that mud, feinting and twisting as the bullets whipped past. "I just followed in his footsteps," Jock wrote. "I felt safe in his shadow."

Another step, an ankle twist, and Jock was down, not cut down this time, but a spectator, one of the crowd as the team played on. He watched as Tam ran, till there was no further to run, just barbed wire ahead.

None of them slowed down, Jock said. Not one.

They ran until they were tangled and snagged in that wire, and the Krauts rose up out of their trenches and bayoneted them, calmly.

He had 18 months left in this world, young Jock, 12 of them spent in a sanitorium, till the nightmares subsided, his screams died away.

He never worked out why they ran on, but he remembered that smile, being shown the way.

When he bought it, it was to a bullet clean in his chest, outstretched like a sprinter reaching for the finishing tape.

And I'm standing, still, as the procession nears, swirling sounds ever louder, fit to rip through a man's heart. I lost a grandad, and last week I lost a grandson, Tam Junior, to another war, played out on burning sand.

He was a runner, good sport, and I'm thinking of glory and what makes a good death, and it all feels bitter.

But now the flags are being taken off the cairn so we can see the inscription, and a shaft of light arrows down.

The clouds have parted, up there, leaving a rectangle of clear sky. And two crisp white vapor trails crisscross the blue: a perfect cross of St Andrew.

 

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