Short Fiction/University of Essex International Short Story Prize 2021, 3rd place
We always sit in the East Stand, three rows from the front, close enough to smell the churned up divots and the left-back’s sweat. Maldonado usually plays there for us. Argentinian but nothing special. Medium height, medium build, neither fast nor slow. But solid enough for League Two. Hard in the tackle. Scores a couple of deflections a season, mostly at the right end.
I’ve been bringing Alex to the games since he was ten. He used to come in full kit, clip-clopping around in his studs, shin pads twisted in his socks, Maldonado 21 on his back. Probably hoping for a few too many twinges on the pitch, a sparse subs bench, an announcement over the tannoy: We need help – urgent, like – is anyone ready to go? I remember dreaming the same stuff when I was a kid. Still do from time to time. I guess you don’t stop dreaming, you just stop turning up in your kit.
Today, Alex is wearing a pair of skinny jeans and a torn leather jacket. It’s the last game of the season and he’s brought his new girl with him. The extra ticket will have cost him a couple of hours of stacking shelves so she must be important. I think she’s called Stacey but I was too busy minding my own introduction to process hers. She seems nice though. Smiles a lot. Dark hair and olive skin. Her mum’s from Peru and her dad’s from Coventry. Pretty, certainly, but Alex is no ogre. A bit of a catch, so I’ve heard –the smouldering, broody type. I’m glad he’s found someone. It’s taken him long enough.
The sprinklers shush to a stop and the players come out of the dressing room. They warm up with some stretches, a few ladder runs, and a slick game of piggy in the middle. Maldonado’s the first piggy in. He’s older now, by which I mean he’s early thirties. The new kids are pinballing it round faster than he can turn and for a second he looks lost, but he gets a toe in then boots the ball miles down the pitch.
‘Reckon he’s starting?’ I ask.
‘Benched.’ Alex has already checked on his phone.
‘Maybe he’ll come on later.’ I lean over towards the Stacey girl. ‘Your boyfriend here used to be obsessed with Maldonado. You should have seen his ro—’
‘Leave it, Dad.’
I pat him on the shoulder.
He shrugs me away. ‘Seriously.’
Alex has been beyond moody lately, that dreary music of his drowning out the telly. To be honest Jackie and I are fed up with having him around the house. He’s old enough to fend for himself. But we can’t bring ourselves to kick him out, nor even to have a quiet word. It’s a feeling we both have.
When we arrived at the stadium Stacey and Alex were talking non-stop. Breathless, like. A bit strained, maybe. Now, they’ve gone quiet, watching the players huff about in a claustrophobic game of five-on-five. They’re not holding hands or anything. Remembering my first date with Jackie –and her dad –I decide to give them some space, get me some vittles before kickoff. Alex watches me leave. I guess he’s pleased.
There are a couple of vans on the puddled patch of concrete between the ticket gates and the stands. I join the queue. A young lad is queuing in front of me, a match shirt pulled over a hoodie, Taylor 9 on the back. Hardly surprising he’s opted for Taylor: He’s bagged a hatful this season and every kid wants a hero. I guess it’s strange, then, that out of the whole team, out of all the footballers in the world –Messi for Christ’s sake – Alex picked Maldonado. I mean, I didn’t mind. I actually quite liked it. As much as Maldonado seems a mighty long name when you’re paying by the letter on a shirt – ‘why not that keeper, Ham?’ – I was proud. It showed maturity or something. Single-mindedness, that’s it.
‘Where’s he from, Dad?’ Alex once asked, his head buried in the match day programme.
I told him Argentina. ‘A long way to come to get kicked to bits in the arse end of nowhere.’
Alex ran his finger down the squad list, from Bennett to Yately. ‘He must be the only foreigner in the club.’
You know what, he was right. There was usually a clumsy Danish centre-half or a sulky French winger knocking about, but for a while Maldonado was the only non-Brit. Even the training staff were all English. Clever for a young lad to figure that out. Thoughtful, like. Even more so with what he said next. There was an injury. A bad one with a long stoppage. Most of the team had gathered for a drink. But not Maldonado. He sat down where he was standing and picked at the grass between his legs.
‘He must be very lonely.’
Fancy a ten-year-old coming out with that. Yeah, thoughtful. A couple of weeks later I came across Alex’s Championship Manager team, left open on the computer. Maldonado was captain, of course. On free kicks and penalties too. And it seemed Alex had spent the rest of his wage budget hoovering up off-contract South Americans. His team’s local town must have had a Little Columbia in the terraced streets, carnivals and all. Sweet, I thought, although when Alex came in he shut down the game like he’d been caught viewing something indecent.
I guess that might explain Alex’s fascination with Maldonado. An otherness they shared. Because Alex has never had many friends. I’m not sure why. He’s got all the right interests. Lower-league football has street cred these days. But he’s always kept himself to himself. That’s his single-mindedness kicking in, I suppose.
The food van lady’s getting impatient. I must have been gawping at the menu board as if it changes every week. I take pie and chips. Alex and Stacey are probably tongue fencing by now and there’s still five minutes until kick-off so I walk back via the stall where they sell shirts and stuff.
‘You got anything Maldonado?’ I ask on a whim.
‘Could be his last game,’ I say. His contract hasn’t been renewed, and if the team gets promoted today, which they should, there’ll be no place for him next season. The vendor shrugs. I make do with one of those unholy half and half scarves, two teams stitched together to commemorate match day. It’s made worse by competing shades of red, an eye-watering clash where the teams meet. But it’ll be a nice memento for Alex and Stacey. Where it all began. They’ll thank me in twenty years.
The game’s about to start. I make my way back to my seat, expecting to see Stacey with her head resting on Alex’s shoulder, a two thousand yard stare aggregated between them. But no, they’re huddled separately. I offer Stacey a chip. She gives me a smiley ‘No thanks, Mr. Coulson.’
‘Please, it’s Geoff,’ I say, in case she’s half forgotten my name too.
I don’t bother offering any to Alex. He never eats food on match day. Nerves, I think.
The game’s scrappy. The oppo are poor and we sink to their level, though we’re hardly Barcelona in the first place. It starts to drizzle. With the direction of the wind we’re sheltered by the stand, but the bench on the far side is mostly exposed. Maldonado’s in the corner, his coat pulled up over his mouth. Alex is looking that way, quietly pulling the zipper of his jacket up to his chin. He used to talk non-stop, only shutting up when Maldonado was on the ball. A little intake of breath and he’d sit still as a fishing bird until his hero clipped it into the channel or played it sideways. It’s not like Maldonado ever did anything exciting. I suppose Alex appreciated his simplicity, his dependability. Something like that.
It’s 0-0 at half time. A packed midfield, a bad game. The pie was good.
Stacey nips off to the ladies’. The groundsmen are advancing in a line, knitting the divots back into the pitch. At the far end, some local juniors are shooting waywardly at the goal. Alex and I sit in silence. Not unusual. Comfortable, sort of.
‘She seems nice,’ I say.
‘Yeah. She is. Nice.’
Alex opens his coat and tugs at the neck of his t-shirt. It looks like he’s about to say more, but then Stacey comes back. Apparently the ladies’ were out of order so a steward had to escort her into the gents’ and guard her cubicle. Alex watches her talk, but he’s not laughing like I am. He’s got this almost calculating look about him. Then, dead jerkily, he kisses her on the cheek. A funny gesture, a bit forced. But Stacey doesn’t seem to mind. She laces her fingers through his then settles both their hands on her knee. At last. I can only imagine what Alex is feeling. That heat when you touch, the same I felt with Jackie and still do sometimes, the pleasant clamminess, an achy pressure. First love, there’s nothing quite like it. I can practically see the terror on Alex’s face.
There’s a buzz going round that Tranmere are 1-0 up. That’s unexpected and bad news. We have to equal or better their result to secure promotion. At half time Maldonado gets subbed on. That’s also unexpected. He’s hardly going to break the deadlock with a nifty through ball, but I suppose his experience might help. He stoops to the turf and crosses himself then sprints in bursts towards our side of the pitch. Alex watches him all the way, his mouth slightly open.
‘Told you he’d come on,’ I say.
‘Yeah.’ He’s still holding hands with Stacey, but whereas her fingers are clenched tight, his are slowly uncurling.
The second half is as bad as the first. Tense though. Alex watches Maldonado and I do too. His dark hair flaps like a bat whenever he picks up his knees to fill a gap down the left, his sturdy black boots slinging out a wake of muddy turf. He doesn’t wear gloves, not ever, which is novel for a Latin-type. And whilst the new kids wear kit that’s tight as a second skin, he’s in long shorts pulled up high and a baggy shirt tucked in. Old school, traditional, exactly how Alex used to wear his kit, spending hours in the mirror folding the hem over his waistband to get it just right.
Maldonado does well for the most part. Keeps their nippy winger quiet, through positioning rather than pace. But there’s a moment when he gets caught out and lunges in on their stocky centre-mid. A scuffle follows. With all the hoo-ha it seems he might walk, but it’s only a yellow. Lucky. For us all. When Maldonado got sent off a few seasons back, Alex fell to pieces, cried all the way home. It took him until breakfast the next morning to speak out what was troubling him.
‘Does he have to go home now?’
I explained that a three match ban didn’t usually result in deportation. To cheer him up, we went to the library and printed some Maldonado posters; they didn’t sell any in the shops so we had to make our own. Alex was a dab hand on Microsoft Paint, and he took his time adding the badge and the number, carefully cropping the image. When Maldonado’s ban was over we waited in the car park, a two-man welcome back party. Alex offered up one of the posters for an autograph.
‘Gracia, gracia,’ Maldonado said, even though the toner was blurry and the paper was creased. It’s probably the only time he’s ever signed something at the club other than his rolling contract. Alex didn’t speak for hours afterwards, not until Jackie put his tea on the table.
In the end he got quite good at Spanish, his only B at GCSE. Practised endlessly, long conversations with himself in the shower. I remember when I took him to the Shy Pony for his first pint, sweetened with a dash of lemonade. A little giddy and flushed, he said, ‘Maldonado means “the ugly one”. Ironic, right?’
My mind’s so firmly planted in the manly grumble of the pub I don’t notice the ball ricochet into the stands, not until it’s looming large and white in front of me. It glances off my shoulder. Winds me a bit.
‘Pay attention, Dad,’ Alex says.
‘I am. I am.’
Stacey’s phone rings and she takes the call out the back of the stand. The game trudges on. Misplaced passes and bad first touches. Maldonado receives the ball from the keeper and then clips it into the channel. We must have seen that action thousands of times. That’s when Alex comes out with it.
‘Dad, how do you know when you’re in love?’
I’m shocked. He hasn’t asked a question this big since I took him camping: ‘Do they see the same stars in Argentina?’
I gather my thoughts. It’s important that I get this right. I think about Jackie, about how she made me feel in those early days. It’s mostly the hysteria that comes back to me; the ecstasy and the terror.
‘It’s a bit like being on a rollercoaster,’ I say. ‘Or in a quickly dropping lift. Tell you what, it’s not far off a promotion nail-biter.’
I glance at Alex. If anything he looks more glum. Cliché rubbish: no wonder. I think harder.
‘At times it feels like you’re hungry but don’t want to eat, and at others like you’re full but want more food, just for the taste.’
I think I’m getting worse, but this time he gives a little nod.
‘And you want the best for them,’ I continue. ‘Truly the best. You feel everything they feel. Their highs are your highs. Their lows are your lows. And all that kind of stuff.’
This time, a near soundless sigh.
‘And if you don’t mind your old dad saying this, when they touch you, well, I don’t want to call it electric or anything naff like that, but it is, it’s electric, like a sort of heat that stays with you.’
Alex hand comes up to cup his cheek. That gesture: it nags at me. He’s gone red as the plastic seats.
‘When you know, you know,’ I conclude.
He bites his lip and nods again.
I clear my throat. My mouth’s gone dry. I knew I should have got a pint with my pie. ‘This Stacey got you all in a flutter then?’
There’s three minutes of added time. Maybe Maldonado’s last three minutes for the club. Alex is perched forward, drinking in every last second of him. It’s still 0-0 and Tranmere are still 1-0 up. The crowd’s getting angsty. The ball goes out of play. Goal kick. Clock’s ticking. Maldonado picks it up from the keeper and it looks like he’s going to clip it into the channel, but he drops his shoulder and knocks it past the winger, and then he’s pounding down the wing, his head tipped back and his hair flapping, the defence are backing off, he’s carried it thirty, forty, fifty yards, there’s a clear sight of goal. His right foot plants firmly as his left swings back. Alex, bless him, grabs my hand.
But there’s someone moving faster than Maldonado. Their stocky centre-mid, and it’s like the turf has suddenly lost all friction, gravity too, because that heavy block of a bloke is somehow high and horizontal, his studs up and onto Maldonado’s knee. The joint bends sideways through the hinge. A sickening crack reaches all the way back to us. He crumples to the ground in an oddly silent heap. Alex still has hold of my hand, but now he’s squeezing, squeezing until the joints of my fingers grind together. I don’t tell him to stop. I squeeze gently back.
There’s commotion, two red cards and a bunch of yellows. Maldonado is lying to one side, surrounded by medics and physios. The oxygen comes out, never a good sign. The tannoy groans to life. They need help – urgent, like – is there a doctor?
Alex turns to me. I don’t know why he’s asking me for permission, but he is, so I nod. And then he’s up on his feet, tearing down the side of the pitch.
I bump into Alex’s girl as I shuffle out the end of the row.
‘Just give us a moment, Stacey,’ I say.
‘Course it is. Sorry.’
‘Is someone hurt?’ she asks.
Alex has drawn level with Maldonado now. He’s leaning over the advertising boards to get that little bit closer. ‘That’s right.’
I make my way down to Alex and stand behind him, supportive, like. We get glimpses of Maldonado through the crowd of medical staff. His eyes are clamped shut, his teeth clenched beneath the clear rubber of the oxygen mask. His kneecap’s on sideways. They take an age bracing his leg before lifting him onto the stretcher. There’s a smattering of applause as they gingerly carry him across the pitch towards the tunnel. But at the same time news filters through that Tranmere have conceded late on and it finished level. This game has been practically abandoned so we’re getting promoted. The chants pick up, but not for Maldonado.
Alex watches Maldonado all the way to the tunnel. There’s something in the way he’s standing that nags at me again. It comes back, slowly. A while ago I was out food shopping. One of Jackie’s long lists. Never in the right order, but with a little heart next to the Hobnobs, permission. I was smiling at this when I turned down tinned goods. I near enough bumped into him: Maldonado. He was weighing up the pros and cons of two brands of kidney beans, taking his time; it was off season and he was making that shopping trip last. I manoeuvred past him and made my way to the lentils. Bottom shelf, right at the back, behind a pillar, typical. By the time I’d extracted myself, a shelf-stacker had joined us in the aisle. It always takes me a second to recognise Alex in his uniform, as though I can’t believe he’s got his own life. Maldonado was moving up the aisle towards him. When Maldonado drew close, Alex said something to him in Spanish. There was a moment of quiet, then Maldonado tipped his head back and laughed. They both laughed. Even though I didn’t understand, I laughed too. Then, as the Latin types sometimes do, Maldonado patted Alex on the cheek. When his hero moved on and out the aisle, Alex cupped that cheek as if he were sheltering a precious flame.
Now, watching Maldonado disappear into the tunnel, he’s cupping his cheek again. Or not just cupping: gripping.
I want to reach out, touch his shoulder, something like that. Before I can, Stephanie reappears, dead cheerful. The crowd’s picking up, a pitch invasion imminent. Sensing the excitement, she bear-hugs Alex, pinning his arms to his sides. Truly, she’s a nice girl. I watch Alex. His face drops an inch and he’s as pale as line chalk. I try to catch his eye but his gaze is fixed on some point in the distance. But by the time Stephanie lets him go, he’s rescued his expression. A smile that would fool almost anyone.
We follow the crowds out of the stadium. The ambulance is parked up on the curb by the stadium’s loading bay, lights flashing silently. From the looks of it Maldonado’s in for a long recovery. He’s got no family over here and these things get lonely, so I’ve heard. I suppose Alex and I could pop by the hospital or his house some time. Check how he is, keep him company. You know, see if Alex and Mauro share interests and stuff, like.
Nicholas Petty is a British writer living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. His short fiction has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize, and has been published in The London Magazine, The Moth, and elsewhere.