A few drivers had slowed to look up at the side of the coach as it circled the roundabout. Along one stretch of its window, near the back, three pairs of white buttocks were pressed to the glass like a row of supermarket chicken breasts. A car came past and the driver sounded his horn. The next driver repeated the action. When the coach lurched off the roundabout one of the pairs of buttocks momentarily disappeared, before returning emphatically to its place alongside the others.
Tom sat alone beside his kitbag, looking across the aisle at the hysterical gurning faces of the three mooners. The middle one had dropped his trousers to his ankles, his cock bobbing stupidly with the motion of the vehicle as it overtook a caravan onto the dual carriageway. Tom turned away, glad that the short journey was nearly over.
They were on their way to a hotel away from the town center— a preseason policy enforced by the chairman in the aftermath of one eventful weekend the previous summer. Tom had not been at the club then, although he had heard the story. He’d arrived less than two months ago, shortly after being let go by his boyhood club at a brief and tearful meeting with the new manager. The memory of that afternoon was still difficult for him to think about. All of the second-year scholars lining up in the corridor among the new man’s cardboard boxes and whiteboards. The office and its stale stink of the old gaffer’s cigarettes. The sight of the new manager behind the desk, calling for him to take a seat.
“You’re a good lad, from what I hear. Your parents should be proud of you. You’re going to be some player, when you grow into yourself. I’ve got no doubt that you’ll find another club.”
Tom found out afterwards that he’d spoken exactly the same words to all of them, except for the two he had awarded first-team contracts to. Thirteen lads who had progressed through each of the youth levels with Tom, all hoping now for another club to phone them while they thumbed the jobs pages or took on work from recruitment agencies, shopping centers, the multiplex, all waiting to grow into themselves. Unlike most of them, though, Tom did get approached. A small club down south. His agent called him one morning to say that their chairman had organized a hotel for the night so that he could come down and talk to them with a view to a one-year contract.
“Who?” his sister asked when he told his family. “What are they, non-league?”
“No, they just got promoted from the Conference. My agent says they’ve got money behind them.” He looked away, not wanting to see her reaction, and clocked his dad already at the computer, peering, slowly nodding at the screen.
The three backsides returned to their seats, laughing. The middle one, scanning around to see if anybody was still watching them, caught Tom’s eye, and Tom gave him a dumb grin before turning to the window. Cars moved past them in the other lane. Out of some, the blue and white scarf of that afternoon’s opposition flapped and spanked against rear windows. Inside a camper van, two young children were sticking their tongues out at him.
The match had begun promisingly. It was Tom’s first start of the preseason friendlies, and the sick cramping tension of the dressing room had left him the moment play started. During one early scrappy passage the ball spilled out to him on the wing and he ran automatically at the fullback who, stumbling, tripping, ballooned the ball away over their falling bodies for a corner. Adrenaline carried Tom towards the flag to demand the ball from the tiny ballboy. For the first time since he had left home he was liberated from thought, absorbed in the match. He struck the corner cleanly, and from the wrestling mass of the penalty area somebody headed the ball against the crossbar. In that instant Tom felt something inside him let go, an excitement, a lust, that left him almost dizzy as he turned and jogged back into position.
After that, though, most of the play switched to the other end of the pitch. A bungle between the central defenders, Boyn and Daish—who were sitting now on the seats in front of Tom watching a game show on a laptop—resulted in a goal for the home side. Confidence sank from the team. They lost 3–1. In the miserable sweaty fug of the dressing room afterwards Clarke, the manager, told them that they were a bunch of soft fucking fairies. When one of the younger players giggled, the manager stepped forward and kicked him in the leg.
The coach left the dual carriageway and joined the heavy traffic moving down a superstore-lined arterial road. By a set of traffic lights a group of home supporters stood on the pavement outside a pub, smoking. One of them noticed the coach and gawped at it for a moment until they all understood what was next to them and started into a frenzy of hand gestures. In front of Tom a few players turned to look at the group, but he pretended not to see them. At his old club even the reserve team coach had tinted windows. Now, outside the top flight, the supporters were an actual presence. They came up to him in the street and at the supermarket. Inside Town’s small, tight, windswept ground, where they stood in little grimacing clusters along the terracing, he could already identify individual voices and faces amid them. The lights changed. He gave a final glance at the group, now rhythmically fist-pumping in an ecstasy of abuse as the coach pulled away in the direction of the hotel.
He was rooming with Chris Easter, the captain—a situation that Easter seemed none too happy about as he dumped his bag on the bed by the window, turned on the television, then pounded at the windowpane for a couple of minutes before eventually accepting that it was not designed to open. He remained beside it for some time, staring out at the flat-roofed view of a neighboring retail park, occasionally giving a small shake of his head.
Easter, Michael Yates and Frank Foley, the goalkeeper, were no longer allowed to room with one another, in any combination, and had all been paired with younger or newer members of the squad. Despite this, Clarke did not seem to have a problem with the three keeping company if there was a night out after one of the friendlies. They sat together that evening in the first of a convoy of people carriers, and they formed a small boisterous circle with a few of the other senior players by the bar of the first place the squad went into while everybody else piled into a large sticky red booth near the toilets.
There was nowhere left to sit when Tom got to the booth, so he stood behind the curved banquette alongside the other young players, most of whom had come through the youth team and stuck together, smiling and straining to hear above the music what was being said. Sitting immediately below him the right back, Marc Fleming, was telling a story. Tom could not hear a word of it. He kept his eyes on the top of Fleming’s head, trying, in case anybody should look up at him, to appear coolly amused. The raw greased scalp shone through Fleming’s hair. Whatever it was that he was saying, the seated players were gripped by it. At the end of the story Fleming bent forward and slapped both his palms onto the table. A wave of laughter coursed around the booth and Fleming pushed back, obviously unaware of Tom standing right behind him because his head bumped Tom’s stomach and he twisted to look up.
“Christ, Tommy, that’s the closest any of our balls has got to each other all day, that is.”
In that moment Tom felt so grateful that he was almost moved to put his hand on Fleming’s shoulder and attempt something funny in reply. Somebody else began speaking. Tom departed for the toilet. On his way back, in order to avoid being bought another drink, he went to the bar to buy one for himself. He did not notice until he got served that he was wedged up against the back of Frank Foley. Foley was talking to a tall young woman with bare pale shoulders, and each time he leaned in to speak to her his large behind butted against Tom’s hip.
The woman was frowning. “What?”
There was another press of the behind. The woman looked briefly out at the room before turning back to Foley. “Sorry, mate, I’ve never heard of you.” She reached to collect three slim glasses of dark liquid and squeezed out from the crush at the bar. Foley stayed put, one arm on the counter, eyeballing his pint. When Tom moved away he was still there, inert, a similar expression on his face to the one that two and a half thousand other people had already witnessed, three times, earlier that day.
Back at the hotel, in the cafe-bar, Tom stayed on the periphery of the crowd of players singing and tussling and drinking from the bottle of rum that somebody had taken from behind the wrenched-open shutters. He lingered for about half an hour before going up to bed, where he fell into a deep sleep, held under by the fog of a dream, a dim sense that something was not normal, that he had done something wrong and he was going to be found out. His face, his skin, beat against sheets that smelled unnatural, not his own— and he had a shooting realization that he was in somebody else’s bed, they were coming into the room, about to find him there.
He woke, a seizing stiffness in both legs, his face damp. In the beam from a security light in the retail park he could see the bag still on top of the other, empty, bed. He stared at it for some time, his eyelids heavy, gummy with perspiration.
Gradually, unmistakably, he became sure of a faint sobbing noise out in the corridor. He closed his eyes and tried to shut it out. It did not go away, though, and eventually he was forced from his bed, pulling on tracksuit bottoms to go to the door.
He could see as soon as he came out of the room where the noise was coming from. At the end of the corridor, in a leggy heap against a wall and beside a fire extinguisher, a young girl was slumped forward with her forehead resting against her knees. He walked towards her. There was the smell of vomit. A dark tidemark on her shin and calf where it had run down her leg. She continued to cry quietly and did not look up at him as he knelt in front of her.
She did not respond even as he positioned one arm under her armpits, the other underneath the tacky back of first one knee, then the other, and lifted her up. In the brightness of the corridor lighting, with her eye makeup bleeding and a small pink rash on one of her temples, she looked to him even younger than his sister.
“It’s OK,” he whispered. “It’s OK.”
He carried her into the room and kicked Easter’s bag off the bed, then laid her down and gently arranged the covers over her.
She was still asleep in the same position when, with sunlight filtering through the window, Easter came in. He leaned over Tom’s bed and playfully clapped him on the cheeks until he was fully awake. When Easter then left the room, looking from Tom to the girl and smirking, an unstoppable sensation of pride flared inside Tom. The feeling, and the uneasy doubtful one that it turned into, stayed with him as he got up, showered and woke the girl—who moved silently into the bathroom to wash her face and leg before letting herself out into the corridor.
When he joined the squad downstairs she was nowhere to be seen. He did not ask after her, and he did not say anything about what had happened to any of the others. He kept slightly apart while they filed out of the hotel to the mellow tinkling of lobby music and the weary peeved faces of the reception staff. As he went through the revolving doors he noticed the sap leaking from a yucca plant, broken and lolling now beside the entrance, where Boyn and Daish had been play-fighting when Tom went up to bed.
After a long, drowsy coach journey, several of the new players were dropped off at a different branch of the same hotel chain. By now the staff of this hotel had become familiar with Tom’s routine. They regarded him, because of his quiet, solitary way of going about the place, his separateness from the other players, with some intrigue. For almost two months they had observed his daily ritual: entering the breakfast room at five past nine for scrambled eggs, which he cut always into the same precise square inside the tray, toast, sometimes beans, orange juice, tea. He would sit down at the same table in the corner, partly secluded by a plastic tree and a life-sized cardboard chef holding up a plate of food unlike anything in the buffet trays, and finish his meal quickly before driving to training. He returned to the hotel in the early afternoon and generally kept to his room until the following morning; only when he came down to reception to receive his takeaway deliveries would there be any sign of him.
The hotel was a temporary arrangement while appropriate digs were organized for him, the chairman had told Tom, his agent and his parents when they came down to be shown around the club. They had sat in a wood-paneled room, at a large table with coffee and pastries, and the chairman had turned to his mum with a wet smile to say that when Town signed somebody as young as Tom, who had just turned nineteen, they made sure to do right by him. Unless it was agreed that he was mature enough to live in a place of his own, he had said, the club would find a good family for him to stay with in the meantime.
Tom had not spoken to the chairman, or any of the club staff, or his agent, about his accommodation since. But, as he explained to his dad every few days on the phone, now was not the right time, with the new season about to begin, to ask about digs. And living at the hotel had become normal now. He was vigilant of the other players and had learned how to pass through the public areas at different times to them. There were currently, including himself, four staying there. At various intervals there had been several others, all gone now to their own accommodation or to different clubs, or back onto the market. The remaining three carpooled to training and back, and Tom had seen them in the restaurant together, where he sometimes peeked in at them talking and laughing and wondered if they knew each other from previous clubs.
Near the beginning of his time at the hotel there had been an older trialist staying there with his wife and two little girls. The man and his family were friendly to Tom. On a couple of occasions they had asked him to join them when they had seen him sitting alone in the breakfast room. After some initial discomfort he had enjoyed being around them, their easy conversation, the noisy distraction of the children, and a few times he and the player had carpooled together. After a couple of weeks, however, the player was released, something that Tom did not find out until the following day when he was told by one of the receptionists.
For the final friendly fixture before the season opener Tom was a substitute. He sat on the bench, nervous energy tightening through his muscles, alert to every twitch of Clarke on the touchline in expectation that he might at any moment turn round and instruct Tom to strip off. He visualized himself coming onto the pitch, the tempo of the game changing as his teammates, the crowd, willed the ball towards him. The low urgent moan of anticipation from the terraces when it was at his feet—although in fact the ground was less than half full, and partly roofless—the scarce songs and shouts of the Riverside Stand floating up, disappearing into the hot bright sky.
They were up against a higher-division side, Coventry, and the mismatch was evident immediately. For the first twenty minutes Clarke did not turn round at all. When he did, with the team already two goals down, he looked dark and old with rage.
Tom was sent on for the second half. He did not receive the ball for some time and drifted infield from his position on the wing, eager to become involved. Coventry scored again before he had even touched the ball, and as his impatience grew he raced into an uncontrolled challenge on the opposition captain. He knew instantly, from the sharp pain in the arch of his foot, that he would have to come off. He lay there, an awareness of the manager, his teammates, his dad, knuckling his chest, pinning him to the grass. In the treatment room after the match, Clarke’s voice resonating violently down the corridor, the foot was already bruising. The physio sponged it clean, dressed it and told him to get home and put it straight onto ice.
The hotel receptionist misunderstood him. She went away for a few minutes and came back with a steel champagne bucket rustling with ice and a folded white cloth.
“It’s for my foot.”
“Oh, I see, sorry.” She smiled. “Do you need some more?” “No, thanks.” And then, “I’ll get champagne if we ever win a match.”
She smiled again. “All right. I’ll remind you about that.”
He limped away with the bucket, grinning with unexpected elation.
From A Natural. Used with permission of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Ross Raisin.