Tuesday, December 12

Pink Hands, White Knuckles

It was the earliest I have arisen on a Saturday for god-knows how long, but it was a sunny day and although the cold wind blew bitterly I was not unhappy to be out. There must be a place to buy coffee at this time; a coffee would warm me up and deliver some pep into my veins; I fantasised about a cup of coffee. It was not that the night before was particularly heavy with drink but I had sweated through some nightmares and awoke feeling not quite all right. I spoke to my father, who had arrived at our meeting place slightly early and would make his way to the ground before I turned up. We were going to a football match, he and I; something we had not done in half a decade. We were sitting with the opposition fans – rivals! – and I was looking forward to it. At the other end, I walked down the platform. The crowds had not yet shown up. I missed them. I wanted to walk along in the throng. There is something I find delightful about walking with a large stream of people toward the ground and the flecks of tribal colours over winter clothes. But no, the platforms were in shade and quiet. Freight trains passed through and travellers huddled within their own coat collars waiting for their warmer carriages.
I met him and kissed his cheek and we decided, unanimously, that we would eat in the ground. We walked there. The conversation stuttered. It is difficult to speak when there are no questions afterwards; at such times, one is merely voicing an event. He did not really speak, so that I had to prompt him, receiving only short answers. I spoke, said my bit and was met with silence. ‘Lemme just have a fag before we go in.’ We stood outside the turnstiles and I tried to speak some more but he wrung his lips, made the shapes of his mother’s mouth. We were quiet. We looked at the swollen black water of Hackney Wick. He rubbed his hands together—
‘Dunno how you smoke in this weather.’ He wanted to go in. I threw it down.
In the background, in a widescreen line, was the empty stadium, fanning upwards and out from a point buried below the earth. The seats shone, arranged like scales on a snake. A man arrived and said—‘It looks best when it’s empty.’ My father and I sat down on a table for two. The men around me were all opposition fans, men from the construction industry, friends with my boss and my father, men born in the same hospital as me.
‘What you getting to drink, son?’
I ordered a beer and he ordered a large white wine. Then we ordered breakfast. I was all right with my beer. He drank his wine. The breakfast tasted good and before the game began we had had three drinks each. We talked more, or he talked more. As he drank, his tongue became looser. I get on well with my father but we are very different and at times that difference is vast and at others it is minute. There is a lot I don’t understand about him, and probably a lot he doesn’t understand about me. I believe he knows that I love him, and I know that he loves me. He is slowly addressing his mortality, being less than five years from the age at which his own father died. He often speaks of death. I see him often, but conversation is difficult. But I love him dearly and he sits opposite me, merry on white wine, talking freely, singing his own praises and then a moment later saying that it is unimportant. I try to enter a point or two but I see that it does not interest him, so eventually I cease attempting to engage and sit there listening, smiling and nodding. We neck the rest of our drinks at half-twelve and go out for kick-off.
When the crowd roar the seats tremble and the ears ring. My father—‘Sounds great!’ It is cold. My hands sweat in my pocket but I keep them there. The crowd roars, the crowd chants; everything shakes; the feeling is contagious.
We concede in the sixth minute. Because we are sat with the opposition, we have to stand up and cheer regardless. I clap. ‘I’ll order us another round of drinks for half time,’ and he disappeared. The feeling of the stadium reminded me of my youth, when I attended games very often. Back then it was all different. We sat on concrete blocks and victory was uncertain. Now the crowd, aroused by the score, was roaring endlessly and I shuddered. A man in front of us says—‘If North Korea starts a war now we’ve had a right result!’ everyone laughed. The floodlights were on, even though the sun beamed down in weak but blue wintery shades. Overhead planes slit the sky and gulls flap flailing white triangles.
During half-time we defrost and drink another round. The chatter is excited. Despite the score, my father and I are enjoying it. I am enjoying spending time with him. We very seldom spend time together, just he and I. We sit opposite, a table for two, just he and I.
The score remains the same and the match ends. The home fans are jubilant. They gesture at the away fans – brethren! – and laugh. I laugh too.
My father and I go back to our table – a table we have occupied all day – to continue drinking. He is drunk now and it is difficult to talk to him, so I sit and listen. He is drunk so that he talks non-stop and slurs and says ‘cunt’ a lot. I smile and listen to all of his stories of the past and of the now and of the future. At times, my eyes fall and I am discomforted. If I should raise my hand, will I speak at length of my own issues or happenings; if I should open my mouth to utter—‘Have you no interest in me at all, now that we are out together?’ He is very drunk and now drinking with small sips at a time; take a breath and a sip, I think, but he does not. He is recalling a story to me of him meeting all his childhood friends and how they laughed at each other and how things never change. I am no longer friends with anyone from my childhood, so I suppose I have nothing to offer, which is just as good because there is no opportunity to; he is telling me about his friend Steve who did this, and his friend Malcolm who did that. His wine glass is still half-full and I order another beer. He orders another large glass of white wine. We sit there opposite each other at the table for two, just he and I.
A man comes along—‘Nine minutes left.’
It is getting dark outside. He spends five minutes in the toilet, against the urinal. I storm in—‘Fuck is taking so long?’ He does not hear me. I wait outside. He tries to pay the bill again until I grab his arm and say—‘You already paid it!’
We walk away from the ground very slowly. He cannot walk straight and stumbles about the place. He keeps saying how drunk he is. The cold air has hit him at once and he realises how much he has drunk. He tells me that it does not matter how drunk he is. He tells me that money doesn’t matter because you can make more of it. He is stumbling and I look around for other people who are stumbling, yet see none. He tells me that family matters. When he starts to reminisce about his father, I try to shift the conversation or crack a joke; when he curses his surviving mother, I do the same. We go to a restaurant and take a seat—
‘I’m wasted.’
‘We’ll get some food inside you and sober you up.’
‘I’m so wasted I’m gonna have to eat these chicken wings with a knife & fork.’
I watch him eat the chicken wings with a knife & fork.
‘So, when you gonna date someone?’ he asks out of nowhere.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ and I stand up and go outside for a cigarette. There is snow falling. The snow is pitiful and does not settle. Snow is not so romantic when it does not settle. Still, I watch couples walk back and forth, arms linked, or shopping bags settled in pink hands with white knuckles. I pulled my collar up over my neck. I ate the cigarette because it was quicker. When I went back in he was on his phone; the restaurant was busy so that people queued out the door and at times the wind would come in to unsettle those nearby. He looks at me and fumbles over his words.
The talk is gone from him. ‘Have these,’ I say. He tells me to have them instead but I have had too much and am awaiting the mains. We eat eagerly. His is hot so that his nose runs from the heat. I look at him, smiling.
‘I’ve had a great day, son. Wonderful!’
‘Good,’ I say—‘Me too.’
He has his train to catch. He does not stumble so much but is still drunk. We walk through the white, tubular underbelly of Stratford station. The sign painting toward my platform—‘O, this is me,’ I say. We kiss cheeks as strangers separate around us. We disappear from each other.

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