Bernie Colwyn was striding towards him. Bernie Colwyn, rugby prop-forward. He smacked both hands against Nick’s shoulders and Nick shuddered beneath the onslaught.
‘Good t’see ya, mate!’ he enthused. ‘Ready for the off? If you’ve come looking for a cancellation you’ve forgotten Hodgson’s little quirks.’
Nick watched Bernie’s smile dissolve into a frown, and then erupt again into an eye-twinkling grin.
‘Whatever you’re on, mucker, save some for me. I’ll have it later.’ An arm waltzed him around. ‘C’mon now. Let’s go kick the shit outta these freshers.’
With the pick of the crop before him, Hodgson was strutting back and forth revelling in the choices it afforded. Already he’d had the company divide by experience. As expected, the freshers made up the largest group, those who had played rugby at their schools standing slightly apart from those who hadn’t but fancied their chances — or a laugh.
Nick looked them over. He’d stood in that group the previous October, wondering what he was letting himself in for. Those hoping for a laugh were in for a rude awakening. Laughs were saved for the bar, after a game. On the field it was to the death.
‘There’s a lot of meat across there,’ Murray whispered over his shoulder.
‘Don’t start fretting until you’ve seen them run.’
‘Running is for fly-halfs, and there’s not a fly-half across there. Your place is assured.’
‘Nothing in this life is assured,’ Nick told him. He thought that his own place on the first team might be, though, considering the look of the opposition.
An hour had passed before Hodgson had completed his form filling and team talks. Nick had worried that the warmth of the Sports Centre might have started another wave of dizziness, or whatever it had been, but he felt okay. The meal, or half the meal he’d eaten, had worked its charm. When Hodgson finally led them out under the floodlights he was looking forward to the exercise, even to the rain, though not everyone felt the same. There was a general chorus of groaning as heads were bowed into hunched shoulders.
The group broke into a jog. Nick stood apart to raise his face to the ink-black sky. The rain was cold. Iced. It stung as it hit him and he had to squint to protect his eyes, but he stayed there, breathing slow and deep to enlarge his lung capacity, feeling the rain gather at his throat to run under his shirt and down his chest.
He shuddered and blinked, pushing back his slick hair. The group were along the edge of the field now, a ghostly bobbing mass at the furthest reaches of the pooled floodlights. Nick felt energized, better than he had the entire day. He would catch them before they were two-thirds round the circuit, he decided, jog at Hodgson’s shoulder and ask him how his holiday had been.
Hodgson blew his whistle after the second lap. He had cones set out and the trialists running in relays around them. Some of the beefier participants came croppers on the corners, churning the mud as they slid full length, adding vital seconds to Hodgson’s stopwatch. Nick saw it as he took the last corner on his run: the red and blue panelled golfing umbrella.
Murray welcomed his return to the fold, slapping him on the back. ‘Good time! No problem!’
Cocking his head towards the Sports Centre doorway, he said, ‘Have you seen who’s here? You can’t say that she’s not keen.’
Nick turned his shoulder to the rain and looked through the blaze of the floodlights. Her head was lost in the over-shadowing umbrella, her body a silhouette against the lighted doorway, showing the long, tightly-clad legs and waist-hugging jacket to best effect. He wondered if the suntan was as bright as Murray maintained, and if it stopped at the bikini line or covered every inch of her. The thought brought a bitter taste to his mouth and he spat a string of phlegm across the squelching grass as he shifted his stance to watch the last of the runners come in.
Hodgson blew his whistle. ‘Okay! Okay! Three groups of two, now. Keep jogging so your muscles don’t chill. Three groups of two. Leader takes a ball. Run and pass along the line, now. Run and pass!’
They ran and passed, the ball zig-zagging down the line as the players drew out across the field.
‘What is this?’ Hodgson demanded as the leaders returned to him. ‘If you want to play xxx girlie-ball get the xxx off my pitch! Spread yourselves out and throw the bastard thing!’
And so the two lines spread further apart and the ball was arced across the space between them, its slippery surface glinting white under the floodlights.
Nick noticed the dropouts on the return run. Heads bowed, some had their hands resting on their hips, others resting on their thighs. One limped. Another was on his knees throwing up an ill-advised late meal. Nick chuckled. He was feeling good; a little winded, but good. His gaze followed a couple of stragglers walking towards the sanctuary of the Sports Centre. She was still standing in the doorway, waiting for him, the red and blue umbrella hiding her face.
Hodgson split the field again, this time into mixed ability groups facing each other across the width of the pitch. Nick placed his feet purposefully on the line. Murray sidled up to him.
‘About time, too. A little hand-to-hand never did anyone any harm.’ He clenched his fists and muscle tensed all along the soaked arms of his shirt to bunch around his shoulders. He growled at the opposing line.
‘And who have you got in your sights?’ Nick asked.
‘Anybody who dares touch the ball.’
‘You watch yourself,’ Murray warned. ‘There’s always some bastard wants to score points by tearing the ears off a little ’un. Remember last year.’
Nick glanced across at him. That was how he and Murray had forged their alliance. Some house-side had deliberately put the boot in and then crushed him beneath a belly-flop. Murray had dragged off the offending carcass and had been intent on making a corpse of him until he, too, was dragged clear.
‘I can take care of myself,’ Nick murmured. ‘It’s brains that count, not brawn.’
He watched Murray study him out of the corner of his eye, expecting something to be said, but nothing was.
Hodgson threw the ball to the player at the end and blew his whistle. They ran forwards as an untidy line, each watching play to his left. The fool with the ball was going to try a solo up to the skirmish line. Nick gritted his teeth in annoyance, his protective plastic shield biting into his gums. That wasn’t the objective. The objective was to practise passing at a run. Then the fool slipped in the mud, taking more care in his landing than in the safety of the ball. The opposition was on him, but too fast, carving furrows in the grass and fumbling the interception. Nick heard Murray bellowing to his right, and one of their team scooped up the ball and threw himself horizontally in the air, the ball flying through the sheeting rain to be caught and dropped. It bounced, once, twice, before falling dead in open ground. Murray roared in but Bernie Colwyn was the closer, smothering the ball and whipping it from Murray’s reach in a shower of water and mud, to be buried himself the moment he skidded to a halt.
Arms and legs were disentangled and the ball was fed out along the opposing line. Nick held back, watching the play develop. A throw, a throw, a missed tackle, a call, a feint, and a mudman was through their line and running for touch. Nick felt his boot-studs slide then grip in the liquefying surface as he drove to narrow the angle between them. He powered on, aware of others around him, uncertain of their allegiance, dragging air into his lungs, forcing weakening muscle taut, until the familiar pain barrier was met and passed.
His pulse thudded loudly in his ears now, his arms pumping in a rhythm that seemed peculiarly slow. His field of vision narrowed to take in no one but the target. A fire burned in his chest, moving in a solid mass to his belly as the heels of his opponent grew larger. He clenched his teeth, telegraphing a signal to each ligament and sinew. Then he leaped, and reached, and sodden clothing and sticky flesh were sliding along his palms. The world revolved in alternating spokes of light and dark. The ground rushed up at him. He grunted as he bounced, his limbs as floppy as a rag-doll’s, and real time burst upon him with the triumph of his victory.
It came out of the darkness, the sole of the boot, its gleaming studs multi-eyed talons winking in the searing white of the floodlights, the surrounding tangle of mud and grass tiny festering beards. He wrenched muscles trying to move aside, to turn away his head, but he was pinned somehow, an arm beneath his back, and the boot was filling his vision so he couldn’t even shut his eyes against it. Then the night burst in upon itself, purple and yellow. Pain followed, searing through his head. Something was in his eyes, hot and stinging, and he was rolling on to his stomach, spitting mud from his mouth. Blood was mixed with it, blood running from his nose, blood on his hands, and on the cuffs of his shirt... the bastard, the dirty bastard, the dirty xxx bastard...
The ball stood white and unmarked a metre from the bastard’s head. Nick felt his fingers dig into the soft ground as he propelled himself forward, the matted vegetation pressuring beneath his nails, the roar in his throat echoing in his mind. The bastard was on all fours. Nick tried to bring his leg round, to time the kick before the bastard raised himself, but his thrust was too wild and his heel skidded on the water-logged surface. The face lifted, the mouth opening, eyes wide and white as Nick’s forearm smashed into him, catching him askew across the chin and chest, sending him back in a flail of arms and raised legs. Nick fisted with a left, feeling the knuckles strain against the skin; it slid along the ribs not under them. But the bastard was down now, and Nick drew back his foot for a kick that would finish it.
His field of vision whipped sideways. Caught on one leg he didn’t stand a chance, in his temper hadn’t seen his attacker coming on his blind side. Swinging his fist at the massive shoulders was as much out of frustration at his own shortcomings as in anger at the intervention. And then he was caught between the ground and this new opponent, and the ground was solid beneath him and his opponent as heavy as a side of beef. Nick’s breath left him in an audible whoosh, but his right fist was in there, jabbing, jabbing, trying to get round the bulk of the body to the kidneys.
There was a discomfort at his throat that was building to pain. He tried to ignore it, to keep jabbing and reaching and clawing, and then he realised that he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry out. His windpipe was being crushed. He stared at the moon-face above him, brought his sight into focus, centring his gaze onto the slitted eyes and taut-lipped grimace. Murray.
‘...God’s sake, Blaketon, quit it, I tell you. Quit it, you stupid sod, you screaming bastard. It was an accident. What the xxx are you trying to do? It was an accident for Christ’s sake.’
Murray’s words streamed away into the dark hole of the night as the skin around his eyes relaxed. The pinning arm moved to the top of Nick’s chest, and Nick drank in air like a drowning man returning from the dead.
‘Are you with us now?’ Murray hissed. ‘Speak to me, you prat.’
Nick couldn’t get the words to form and instead shut his eyes. Exhaustion was cascading through him. Every limb ached. A pain was returning to his head, throbbing behind his eyes.
‘Stupid sod!’ Murray spat at him. ‘It was an accident, you bastard. What the hell were you trying to do to him?’
A long excerpt this week. Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and ReTweet. There will be more next week, probably the final excerpt.