Standing on the sidelines, mist rising, the sound of his son’s head crunching into another teenage boy’s ribcage – this was George Berkley’s happy place. No unpaid bills, no middle-aged despondency. Only mud and hope and perfectly cold toes.
And this competition was the Big One. This was It. If Archie’s team got through this regional semifinal, the next stop was Twickenham. And from there, who knew? A white shirt and a red rose? Wondrous bloodshed for Queen and country!
It had so nearly been him. He could still almost touch the trophy in his dreams. Forty years previously, on a pitch just like this one, his 17-year-old self giving it all he had. Just five minutes before the final whistle, the greatest try that he had ever scored, the sound of glory ringing in his ears, bringing his team to within kicking distance of a win. So close! They had been so close! And then Robert Hughes had taken – and missed – the conversion kick. Robert Hughes, English scholar. Robert Hughes, poetry lover. Robert Hughes, travesty.
In an instant, the referee’s shout had sucked George back into the game. Archie’s team was playing fantastically well, he must say. He was extremely glad that Archie’s mother was not here. Holly was not a big fan of contact sports and, after last year’s airlift to the spinal unit of the nearest hospital, she had refused to stand by and watch her son being “massacred” any more.
Sending Archie to one of the most expensive public schools in the country had definitely put quite a hefty dent in their finances, but on days like these George didn’t regret it for a moment. The rugby here was second to none, and he himself had felt much happier since he had been able to come and freeze to death on these league-table topping sidelines every Saturday afternoon. Plus, the networking potential was awesome: two of Archie’s teammates had FTSE 100 fathers, one had an oligarch uncle and another owned four islands in the Caribbean. None of them, as yet, had offered George a lift home in his helicopter – they didn’t very often talk to him at all, actually – but if Archie carried on playing like this, they well might.
A scrum. Ball out. Archie on the wing. Running like the wind. As his son thundered past him, George became aware of himself shouting. Loudly. Very loudly. But with good reason. He was going to do it! He was going to score a try! With 10 minutes to go, he was going to take them into the lead…
Overcome with excitement, George took the nearest high net worth into a headlock, but quickly let go when the referee blew his whistle and disallowed the try. And that’s when the old red mist descended.
He heard himself screaming. Felt himself running onto the pitch. But there was nothing he could do to stop himself. He saw the horror on Archie’s face, the referee’s goody-goody whistle blowing defiance, but something deep inside him had taken over.
He felt arms on him, pulling him back. Now the millionaires were paying attention! The referee stepped forward. Tried to talk him down. To explain the reasons for his absurd decision. His demeanour was so composed, so patronising, that George couldn’t stop himself from swinging a punch at his sanctimonious, clean-shaven jaw…
What happened next was all a terrible blur. There was bad language, certainly. Some more violence. A kerfuffle involving an oligarch wrestling him to the ground. Archie crying and pleading like a baby. George telling his son to “man up”. And then blue lights flashing. Blue lights and uniforms and trophies slipping, once again, from his grasp, as the ice-cold handcuffs pinched his wrists.
As he was escorted to the police car – a far cry from a helicopter – George took one last look at the offending referee, who seemed to smile as he passed.
And that was when his brain made the final conversion, back 40 years, through the mud and the mist, to the day that he buried an English scholar’s face in the dirt. “Is there a poem,” he remembered his teenage self crying, “for abject failure?”
As he passed Robert Hughes, he heard him muttering, so quietly that only he and the oblivious policeman could hear. “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed.”