18th June 2018: England 2 Tunisia 1
In Osaka, an earthquake registers 6.1 on the Richter scale, killing at least three people, including, horribly, a nine-year old girl onto whom a wall has collapsed. Meerkats at London Zoo predict that England will beat Tunisia in today’s game, while a minor explosion is reported at Southgate tube station, but is not thought to be the work of terrorists. In that case, Edward wonders, why mention terrorists at all? Southgate, he thinks: although he can’t be bothered much either way about football, he does know that if Gareth Southgate can bring football home, it’ll cause lots of major explosions, everywhere.
In Macclesfield, Edward, who enjoys swimming against the social current, has been hitting the internet hard, surfing the globe so as to confirm that other things apart from the World Cup are still going on in the world. But football just keeps popping out at him. 28 year-old Harry Kane lookalike and dad-of-one Paul Foden from Middlesbrough is hailed on Twitter as an ‘absolute legend’ after Kane scores the winning goal in stoppage time. Kathryn Conn, of Weston-super-Mare, has videoed and then tweeted the joyous reaction of her five year-old son Alex to Kane’s goal, only to discover the following morning that FIFA has deleted her tweet for infringement of copyright.
Edward wonders whether someone who has no children would be called a ‘dad-of-none’. Probably not: it just sounds too sad.
It’s great, actually, what he has to tell his mum-of-one: he knows that his own news doesn’t generally fall into the category of the kind of news you’d tell your mum, but sometimes you’re just so full of something. Tonight, for the third time, he’s asked Charlotte Walsh to go out with him and she has said yes. Finally. She wants to come round to their house next Sunday to watch England vs Panama, so it would be good, Edward suggests to his mum and his stepfather Craig, if they could go and watch it in the White Lion or somewhere.
‘That’s great, Edward,’ his mum says. ‘Two bits of great news in one day.’
‘What’s the other bit of great news?’
‘England beat Tunisia. We’re off to a cracking start.’
‘Charlotte,’ his mum says, finally getting her priorities right. ‘Is she the one the poem was about? The one where you rhymed Charlotte with a lot?’
‘Of course,’ he tells her. ‘How many Charlottes do you think I’ve kissed?’
‘Writing poems,’ his mum says. ‘I didn’t think people did that any more. You’re the Lord Byron of Macclesfield, with your big imagination.’
‘I’m the last of the English Romantics,’ Edward explains. He can’t recall where he saw the phrase, but he likes it.
‘Are you sure that was a good move, giving her the poem? You don’t want to show your hand too early.’ She makes it sound like she’s Gareth Southgate, and love is football.
‘Seems to have worked anyway,’ he says. She’s right, though: as he’d handed Untitled over to Charlotte Walsh and carefully watched her read it, it had been touch and go, like watching penalties. ‘Nobody’s ever written me a poem before,’ she had said afterward, but it didn’t sound as though she was especially moved by it. It was more like she was puzzled about what a person was supposed to do after another person wrote them a poem. Fall in love with them, was the simple answer to that.
‘We’re off to a good start’: it’s disappointing to Edward to have his emotional life weighed on the same scale as the performance of the England team. But he knows that things like the World Cup affect people’s moods, because he’s heard people say so, and it sounds true. ‘It’s great to have something else to think about except Brexit and Trump for a while,’ Craig pointed out, cheery for once. Craig has conveniently forgotten that if he hadn't voted for Brexit, he wouldn't now be trying to forget it.
Expectations of the England team are lower than Edward’s expectations of his affair with Charlotte Walsh (that’s what he’s decided to call it in his own head: an ‘affair’). But already there’s the hint of a doubt in his mind about whether Charlotte Walsh has decided to go out with him on his own merits, or whether she’s just been caught up in this nationwide Mexican wave.
‘Let’s not get too worked up about it,’ some people say when the Tunisia game is over. ‘After all, they’re only twenty-first-ranked team in the the world according to FIFA.’ These people who say this are boring, and wrong. The people who tell us to “dare to dream” are the ones who’ve got it right, although of course Donald Trump spends a lot of time telling people to do the same thing, and look where that’s got everybody. Edward wonders where Charlotte Walsh stands on the world rankings for girls: pretty high, he reckons. Maybe eleventh. On the scale of boys, if he's being honest Edward's not sure he'd have qualified for the World Cup.
24th June: England 6 Panama 1
In the Tham Luang cave complex in Thailand, twelve boys, members of the Wild Boars football team, and their assistant coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, are trapped following the heavy rains which flooded their exit route. Edward is oddly relieved that it’s the Wild Boars and not the England team that is trapped, because if it was the England team, Charlotte Walsh wouldn’t be coming round. A fire, possibly the work of an arsonist, breaks out near Saddleworth Moor, about ten miles east of Manchester city centre and about twenty miles north of where Edward sits at the the desk in his bedroom: he feels a flicker of fear at the closeness of the fire, a flicker he wouldn't have felt if he hadn't checked the location on Google Maps.
Meanwhile, on the website Quora, someone worriedly asks whether the world will end today, as the Bible predicts. The questioner is put right by several commenters, who insist that the Bible nowhere states that the world will end on 24 June.
A small, bespectacled England supporter called Douglas Moreton arrives in the western Russian city of Nizhny Novgrod to learn that he has left his ticket for the Panama game at home in a drawer in Bristol. Prince William, on a symbolic trip to the Middle East, watches the game with the Crown Prince of Jordan. Edward likes reading and thinking about books, and reflects that the princes are two symbols, watching a symbol.
During half-time, Edward and Charlotte Walsh have their first kiss. It is a momentous occasion, though not as momentous as Edward feels it should have been, nor as momentous as the football result, which has everyone bouncing with joy. The same party poopers who complained about Tunisia being a pushover now also complain about Panama being even more of a pushover. This is the night of Edward’s greatest triumph, and he is surprised by how easy it is: he’d expected Charlotte Walsh to put up more resistance.
‘What a great day,’ Charlotte says, wiping her mouth after the kiss, probably to remove any unwanted germs. Edward does not wipe his, wishing Charlotte Walsh’s germs to remain on his lips for as long as possible. ‘That actually wasn’t a bad kiss, Edward. And 6-1.’
‘Which of those two things is more important in your mind?’ Edward wonders. About two hours it'll be, he calculates, before Charlotte Walsh's germs die on his lips.
‘They’re both important,’ Charlotte Walsh says, ‘in different ways.’ Which is no good at all, because she hasn’t realised that there is only one possible answer to his question.
‘That Harry Maguire’s great,’ she says. ‘He’s from Sheffield, but he doesn’t look like it.’ That's the kind of weird stuff she comes out with.
28th June: England 0 Belgium 1
The Saddleworth Moor blaze now occupies seven square miles, and some people in Stalybridge have been evacuated from their homes. One man refers to “ash falling like rain”, while another is put in mind of the apocalypse. In the dating reality show Love Island, Eyal Booker accuses Wes Nelson of stabbing Laura Anderson in the back after ditching her for a shot at romance with Megan Barton-Hanson: though Edward can’t understand much of that, his mum and Craig watch it, and probably can. In Love Island, love and backstabbing go together. The family of the hapless ticket-loser Douglas Moreton reports that he has gone missing in Russia.
In Kaliningrad, England effectively put out a second team because for strategic reasons, they want second place in their group, not first. They think that if they come second, they’ll have an easier route through the tournament to the final. Edward doesn’t understand that: are strategy and planning more important to people than experiencing the passion of the moment? He is now slightly troubled by his kiss with Charlotte Walsh during England 6 Panama 1, and wonders whether it wouldn’t have been better instead to sit down with her and make plans for the future, over a spreadsheet perhaps.
Somewhat half-heartedly, as the final whistle blows he first jokes that Charlotte Walsh’s germs have now died on his lips, then immediately wishes he hadn't said that, and then asks her whether he can kiss her again. She says yes. But, as he sensed it would not, it doesn’t go as well as the first time, and at one point their heads bang together. It’s just as though, he later reflects, Charlotte Walsh had left her romantic first team on the substitutes’ bench.
‘I’m not sure where this is going, Edward,’ she says.
´What do you mean?’
‘It’s like I just don’t feel as excited as I was against Panama,’ she says, as though it had been she, Charlotte Walsh, who had scored the hat trick and not Harry Kane.
‘It’s the football,’ he urges her, tapping his head. ’It’s taken you over. Don’t let other people decide how you feel, Charlotte. They’re filling your mind with the stuff they want to put there. Love Island. The football. Live your own life.’
‘I suppose it could be the football,’ she says. ‘Actually, it’s hard to separate my own life out from everything. Anyway, I quite like having my mind filled with stuff all the time.’
‘You must try, Charlotte,’ he implores her, sounding like somebody out of Game of Thrones. ‘It depends,’ he says, ‘what stuff your head’s full of.’ If you don’t try, he does not add, our love is doomed.
Edward starts to hope very strongly indeed that England can go all the way to the final. His affair, it seems, in the hands of Jordan Pickford, of Harry Kane and even of Jamie Vardy. God help him.
3rd July: England 1 Colombia 1 (4-3 penalties)
In Zurich, Mark Acklom, one of the UK’s most-wanted fugitives, is arrested in Zurich for fraud, having posed as an MI6 agent in order to con a woman out of £850,000. A newspaper in Perth, Australia carries a story about a video in which a magpie in Yorkshire greets mother-of-two Lisa Brooks with the words “You alright, love?” Lisa Brooks and her husband can be heard chuckling in the background of the video, because, Edward supposes, it is unusual to hear a magpie speak. Many birds, Edward reads, are able to mimic the sounds of human languages, with some budgies able to remember nearly 2000 different words.
After Eric Dier slides the ball past Ospina and shows the nation that England can, after all, win a penalty shootout, Charlotte Walsh delivers the best kiss of Edward’s life, and it leaves him feeling like an overjoyed but exhausted footballer, flat on his back, the crowd roaring. He has an erection also, but he's not sure what to do about that, and decides it would be best to let it quietly die down.
Attempts to kiss Charlotte Walsh until that point have met with troubling resistance, because she hasn’t taken her eyes off the television for the full one hour and forty minutes. She screams and whoops and sighs deeply and groans and swears and bounces and then collapses in a pile of sweat. This, Edward notes, is what sex must be like: it’s now surely only a matter of time before his erection gets some first-team match experience. He’d very much like to join in with Charlotte Walsh in all this, but there’s something about her sheer involvement with it all that is making him feel excluded and sad. It was watching the England football team that got her worked up: Harry Maguire, perhaps.
But in the end, it’s OK. After all the screaming and whooping and deep sighing and swearing, Charlotte Walsh still has enough energy left to deliver that kiss.
‘Really dirty, the Colombians are,’ Charlotte Walsh says, still breathing heavily, a half-smile on her face, her mouth half-open, her glistening hair all over the place. Edward reminds her that this is a racist comment, and Charlotte Walsh turns away and replies that she didn’t it mean it like that. Edward feels stupid, and wonders why it is that whenever he opens his mouth in key situations, rubbish emerges, stuff he doesn’t even mean.
After the kiss, neither of them really knows what to say. Some budgies, Edward informs Charlotte Walsh, are able to remember two thousand words, but the fact doesn’t seem to be of much interest to her as she lies there smiling, her eyes closed, her chest still heaving.
7th July: England 2 Sweden 0
Soldiers helping to fight the Saddleworth Moor blaze have been stood down, since the fire crews now appear to have it under control; referring to another fire, at Winter Hill, it is reported that the scorched earth is “so hot it can melt the soles of your shoes”. A 20 year-old man is arrested, suspected of arson. In London, Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall and Love Island’s Eyal Booker lead the Pride celebrations, shouting to everyone that they love them for who they are: Eyal Booker clearly feels more positive about these thousands of strangers than he did about Wes Nelson a few days ago. In the Bahamas, Justin Bieber, who Edward despises for obvious reasons, is thought to have popped the question to US model Hailey Baldwin, while at Rio de Janeiro airport, the Brazilian football team are warmly greeted on their return home following their surprising early exit from the World Cup.
Charlotte Walsh arrives at Edward’s house wearing a Harry Maguire football shirt. Edward’s mum, perhaps sensing that the last time Charlotte Walsh was on her sofa sexual intercourse almost occurred, has prepared a plateful of tuna fish and cucumber sandwiches as an antidote to any possible repetition. Edward asks Charlotte whether he should throw them away in the name of love, but she says of course not and wolfs down three.
‘People at weddings are watching the match,’ Edward tells Charlotte Walsh at half-time, passing her his mobile. ‘People are even showing it at their wedding receptions, look.’
‘It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?’ Charlotte Walsh says.
‘Talking about weddings and love. We’ve only kissed twice.’ Either Charlotte Walsh hasn’t heard him, or she’s suddenly gone mad, or she’s sending him a message: Edward hopes that the first option is the correct one, but doesn’t have time to pursue it. And anyway, it’s three times they’ve kissed. ‘That was a great header,’ Charlotte Walsh says, and Edward feels powerfully and painfully jealous of Harry Maguire. If it was Harry Maguire sitting here and not Edward, she would no doubt not be getting her kissing stats wrong.
As Dele Alli neatly pops the ball in at the far post, with the commentator still shouting and the crowd still going mad, Charlotte Walsh tells him that she has to go because she has to pick up Jack from a birthday party. Edward has no idea who Jack is, and doesn’t particularly care, not least because he can feel that he’s being lied to.
‘You could stay a bit longer, Charlotte,’ he says. ‘There might be more goals.’ He hates himself for doing this, using the match rather than his own charms to prevent Charlotte Walsh from leaving.
‘They’re through to the quarter finals anyway, probably,’ she says, and picks up the last tuna and cucumber sandwich. ‘By the way, you know all that stuff the other day? I don’t want you to start thinking it means anything. OK, Edward? And also, it’d be great if you didn’t tell anybody, OK?’
Edward lies that he hadn’t been thinking it meant anything. Lies, it seems, have already started to poison their affair. He decides that for the time being he’d probably do well to set aside the second poem he’s been writing. That’s the kind of weird stuff she comes out with, the first line goes.
‘See you for the Croatia game, then?’ he asks. Rather than joy, it’s relief he feels when Charlotte Walsh answers OK then.
11th July: England 1 Croatia 2 (AET)
David Davis resigns, and so does Boris Johnson. But if England win tonight, none of that will matter, and anyway, nobody really cares about it except for the few people, about a hundred Edward reckons, whose job it is to run the country (“Into the ground, is where they’re running it,” his Mum says).
Much more important is that in Thailand, the members of the Wild Boars and their assistant coach have been rescued from the cave, to the relief not only of their friends and families, but of millions of other people all over the world. Charlotte Walsh is probably one of those people, though Edward is unable to confirm this, since she doesn’t turn up to watch the match with him.
As his mum and Craig are about to leave for the White Lion, he tells them that if they want they can stay here at home. They can all watch the match together. ‘Oh, Edward,’ his Mum says, when he explains that Charlotte Walsh just happens to be busy.
In Taiwan, people brace for the impact of Typhoon Maria, while in Tipperary, the All-Ireland churn-rolling championships take place. Thomas Nash of Shronell wins the prize, requiring a mere 12.65 seconds to roll his milk churn down the length of Tipperary Main Street. In Washington, the Trump administration announces its plans to hit China with a further $200bn of tariffs.
Come on England, Edward mutters to himself, suddenly and unexpectedly passionate about the beautiful game, feeling that an England victory might bring Charlotte Walsh back for the Belgium match on Saturday afternoon. You know you can do it. The pressure is getting to him: he never expected things to come this far. But, despite an early goal, England are no match for the passion, commitment and organization of the Croatians. They are too young, and the Croatians are too wise. England are boys, and Croatia are men. And somewhere, Charlotte Walsh has been watching them. With someone.
It’s all over. No more whoops and moans, no more glistening hair. After a few disappointed words, Edward, his mum and Craig head for their beds.
14th July: England 0 Belgium 2
According to the Russian news agency TASS, missing England fan Douglas Moreton has been found in a Moscow hotel “in a state of strong alcoholic intoxication”. There was nothing more exciting to Douglas Moreton than that, so now, Edward assumes, the ticket-loser will probably disappear from people’s minds forever.
At the front door, Charlotte Walsh, still wearing the Harry bloody Maguire shirt, apologises to Edward for leading him on like that, and Edward hides his pain by taking a slug from a can of Craig’s Carlsberg he’s taken from the fridge. She must have gone a bit mad during the Colombia game, Charlotte Walsh goes on, with the heatwave and the World Cup and everything. She can see that now. She was, she explains, feeling sorry for him. She doesn’t want him thinking she’s a horrible person. It was nice, she says again, that he wrote that poem. She’s sorry if she’s built up his hopes.
That sounds to Edward like the most arrogant thing a person could say, but in this case it happens to be spot-on.
‘That’s exactly what I thought had happened,’ he mutters. ‘That you got carried away. I told you.’
‘Did you? I don’t remember.’
‘Did you watch the Croatia match?’ he asks weakly.
‘Yeah,’ Charlotte Walsh says. ‘All a big waste of time in the end. F-R-I-E-N-D-S,’ she suddenly sings, from the song by Marshmello & Anne-Marie. 'OK, Edward? Don't go look at me with that look in your eye,’ she also sings, just in case he hasn’t understood her. Blowing him a kiss that is totally meaningless, she tells him it was fun, and that she’ll see him at Moat Hill tomorrow.
‘It didn’t work out,’ he’ll tell his mum later, no doubt adding to the depression she’ll be feeling when she gets back from the White Lion with Craig. She’ll want to know more, but he won’t feel like talking about it. ‘It just didn’t work out, OK Mum?’ he’ll say loudly, something like that, when she asks him whether he wants to talk about it. Budgie boy, they’ll no doubt be calling him next week at Moat Hill. What kind of idiot talks about the language abilities of budgies after nearly having sex? He’ll have all that to go through now, since he happens to know that Charlotte Walsh is one of those people who demands discretion from others whilst spilling the beans everywhere herself.
Blaming the tactical failures of Gareth Southgate for the demise of his affair, Edward has decided to remain in his room for England’s third place match against Belgium in St Petersburg. It is of no interest. Both the people who reminded everyone not to get too worked up and the people who dared to dream have been proved wrong. Because, Edward has realised, it’s just not worth wasting your time thinking about football at all. Only an idiot would tell you otherwise, because, unless you’re a winner, then as soon as it’s all over, it’s gone and forgotten too.
In other news, it turns out that the questioner on Quora was only a few days early regarding the end of the world. With the soldiers gone, the Saddleworth fire has found the strength to rekindle and is spreading in all directions, and the water restrictions brought in for the heatwave mean that little can be done to stop it.
The blaze proceeds steadily throughout Britain without fear or favour, engulfing not only Lisa Brooks and her talking magpie in Yorkshire but also, soon, the match-predicting meerkats of London Zoo. Then faster than anyone can conceive, the fire takes hold around the world. Fanned by the alcoholic breath of Douglas Moreton, the flames consume Mark Acklom and his £850,000 as well, along with Paul Foden, Prince William, Justin Bieber, the Crown Prince of Jordan, and also the population of China, which, to look on the bright side, will no longer have to worry about the Trump administration’s trade tariffs.
The fire takes the entire cast of Love Island and also all the screens on which their affairs are being watched.
The Wild Boars turn around and head back into the Tham Luang cave complex, seeking out the very water which recently so nearly killed them. Now a national hero, Ekapol Chanthawong remains above ground but perishes, tragically at the exact moment he is reunited with his wife and family. Back in Europe, only five year-old Alex Conn and Thomas Nash of Shronell are able to save themselves from the Saddleworth Moor conflagration: two figures bobbing about on the Atlantic on top of Thomas Nash’s milk churn, several miles off the coast of County Clare.
Standing in his socks in the front garden after Charlotte Walsh has left, the can of Carlsberg empty in his hand, the last of the English Romantics is suddenly aware of an intense blast of heat, a warning. The ash falls like rain; the air is no longer air but smoke, dark and bitter, and it catches in Edward's throat. The can, red hot, falls from his hands. He looks down at the parched grass and sees the flames licking at his lower legs, first melting his shoes and then his skin, but strangely he feels no pain as the smell and the taste of his own burning rises to his nostrils, to his germ-free lips. He raises his stinging eyes towards the sky, where he can make out a small smudge moving against the dark smoke clouds. He wonders whether it might be the helicopter sent out to rescue Thomas Nash and Alex Conn, or perhaps the England team’s plane, bringing them home, but tragically soon to come spinning down, setting off a further inferno on Love Island.
Edward coughs and blinks and wipes his eyes clear. A bird, is what the smudge is: a single, solitary budgie, which has managed to fly free of the flames below. As it rises and rises to eventually disappear, the budgie utters in a strange voice two thousand different words, not a single one of which it knows the meaning of, and none of which can be heard.
Jonathan Holland is a Madrid-based teacher and film journalist who is excited to be returning to fiction writing after a long layoff. A former student of the Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, he has published a novel (The Escape Artist, Faber and Faber) and several stories. He is on Twitter as @jonholl.
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