On the last day of the football season we were away to Manchester United and we wanted at least a draw to be safe from relegation. Lose, and we were cast off into the outer darkness of the championship; snatch a point, however, and we moved forward into the broad sunlit uplands of a Premiership awash with venture capital. The ticket allocation was a paltry 3,500. Getting hold of one was impossible, so I went round to my brother’s house to watch the match on Sky.
I don’t get to see him much, but I love my policeman brother. A couple of years ago we found out we were in fact only halfbrothers, but it hasn’t made a whit of difference, and I’m still a free man. When I arrived just before the kick-off, he and his wife and two young children were ranged along the leather suite in their replica away shirts in front of their cinema-screen-sized telly. Saucy little Emily had made a poster of the club crest and stuck it to the window and she was daintily blowing streams of bubbles across the living room. My brother said he’d been so anxious about the outcome of the match during the week that he’d had trouble sleeping at night. ‘Look at his neck,’ corroborated his wife, who is also in the police and worked for many years as a detective. My brother has this habit of clutching the side of his neck when he’s worried, and indeed it was rubbed raw.
I’d been losing sleep over it, too. And I’d fallen in love two days before and was losing even more sleep over that than over the football. It was in a café. She was laughing. I’d glanced at her, my bowels had sort of shot sideways and that was it. Done for. It was as if I’d been vouchsafed a glimpse of her soul and seen my own soul’s perfect complement. Afterwards, the mental snapshot of her with her head back and laughing so dominated my imagination that I couldn’t think of anything else. I even went off my grub. For the first half of the week I’d thought about nothing except Sunday’s match, and during the latter half nothing apart from the devising of a strategy to cleave my soul to this vision of loveliness.
(Look, I know the Interahamwe are hanging babies in eastern Congo. But if only someone would tell these people that if they’d only stop bickering among themselves, then they too could enjoy the marvellous fruits of Western democracy like romantic love and televised ball games.) I had to be careful, though. She was spoken for and I didn’t want to upset the apple cart — not yet anyway. But spoken for or not, I had to tell her. I’d managed to get hold of her phone number. I barely knew her, though. What was I supposed to do? Ring her up and tell her I’ve had a vision?
And suppose her partner’s in the room when she takes the call and her mild embarrassment sets his psychic antenna twitching. You can picture it. ‘So who was that then, babe?’ he says. It’s not like him to ask, and her reply is uncharacteristically evasive. He presses. Her evasiveness hardens into a refusal to tell. A stand-off develops, which within ten minutes has escalated to the point where the relationship is on the verge of doing a Twin Towers. If I’d had ten pence for every time I’ve been in that situation, I’d have had free calls to any network since 1999.
I decided to send a text. I sent: I luv u. Can we spk? Wens a gd time? Pls txt me back asapx. In a fever of anticipation, I checked my phone for messages every quarter of an hour for the next two days. By the time the match kicked off on Sunday afternoon, I’d received nothing apart from a racist joke from my old karate sensei. Heartsick with deferred hope, I took my seat on my brother’s expensive leather armchair and focused on the match.
I wasn’t in it for long, though. Neither was my brother in his. You couldn’t watch that sitting down. It was like the defence of Rorke’s Drift, with the lads battling desperately against unbelievable odds. Instead of the poker school we’d been following for half the season, we were watching a football team to be proud of. Just before half time, moreover, a miracle occurred and we scored a breakaway goal. My brother and I were clasped to each other’s bosom roaring and pogo-ing in tandem around his sitting room. You’ve got a message, said my brother’s detective wife to me, when we’d calmed down a bit. With trembling hands I checked my phone. It was a message from her! If u want to talk, I am free now, it said. I stared unseeingly into space. When you’re walking in a West Ham wonderland, Planet Love seems such a very long way away, and it took a second or two to register that my impassioned prayers had been answered from up there as well.