Lately, when I lie in the darkness at night smoking a couple of spliffs in bed and switching off from the day spent traipsing all over teaching my students English, I’ve been having vivid flashbacks to my childhood. Random stuff. Never anything particularly significant. But one memory always leads on to another, and I am there, back on the school field or sat in detention or on Western Road in Brighton doing Christmas shopping with my sister, my nan and my aunt. I can smell it. Hear it. Feel it. Tonight is no different, but for the fact that I don’t have to get up for work tomorrow morning on account of a chest infection, meaning I can sit up in front of my laptop and write some stuff down. I am aware that smoking with a chest infection makes me an idiot.
For some reason tonight my brain took me back to an eventful day in the early months of 1995, when I was 11, playing out like a film in my mind’s eye, with 3D glasses provided free of charge, scenes that had been absent from my memory for well over a decade. Bizaare scenes.
It’s about half past one in the afternoon and, unlike most of my mates, I’m not in class but rather the school hall. I’ve been excused from lessons because I’m in the school production and an emergency rehearsal has been called because the performance date is approaching and we’re shit, basically. Nowhere near ready. My role in the play is a small one so most of the time it’s other people rehearsing their bits while I’m sat on the floor with the other D-Listers. I keep getting told off for talking and pissing about and the teacher’s really starting to get on my tits. I’m not interested in the production, I only signed up for a part in it because I knew it would get me out of class occasionally. Also I’ve got something more important on my mind. In a few hours I’m going to be making my debut for the school’s Year 5 football team and, even more exciting than that, it’s against Manor Hall, our biggest enemy, the school from just up the road, the kids of which we fight in the park, the same kids that we went to first school with and were best friends with until we separated and went to different middle schools at the end of Year 3 and became sworn foes. This is a proper derby. And my nan’s coming to watch. And even better than all of that, we get to leave school early to get over to their school in time for the game. At 2 o’clock I’m sent to go and get changed with the rest of the team. I’m given shirt number 11. I wanted 8, because it’s Gazza’s number, but 11 is the next best thing, I’m not complaining.
There aren’t enough seats in the mini-bus for the whole team so those of us with bikes take them instead. Down Church Lane, cut through the graveyard, across the green, through the square, along Manor Hall Road. Say hello to my nan. Jog up and down. Start the game. And then a moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life, of this I am sure, almost 20 years after it happened. A cross is put in from the left wing. I don’t know by who, but it isn’t by the player that should be out there, our left winger, because that player is me, and I’m hovering about just outside Manor Hall’s box. The ball goes over my head towards our star player Ross and as it approaches him it plays out in front of me in slow motion, as I know that Ross is more than capable of taking the sting out of this with his chest and then laying it off to me, and the one thing that I pride myself on is my technique when it comes to volleying. I position myself and Ross plays it perfectly, it bounces just in front of me and sits up nicely and I take it on the half volley and connect with it more sweetly than I will ever connect with another ball in my life. I watch it fly from my boot and I know already that it’s going in the top corner. Everybody knows it. There is silence as the ball spins away deliciously to its target. The goalkeeper doesn’t even bother moving. I’m about to write my name into school folklore by scoring a wonder goal from outside the box against Them. Them from up the road. Them whose school jumpers are bright blue as opposed to our navy blue ones. And my nan’s watching. And she’ll tell everyone what she saw. She’ll tell my dad. What goal celebration am I going to do?
The ball smacks against the angle of the crossbar and the post and ricochets behind for a goal-kick.
I go into shock.
At half-time my nan’s words do little to console me. And then minutes into the second half I’m substituted. The kid who replaces me is the kid whose boots I am wearing, I had to borrow them because my family can’t afford a pair at the minute. I go with my mate who was also taken off early to the changing room to get changed, and somehow we manage to get into a fight with a couple of boys from their school. Nothing serious. Just a bit of fisticuffs following a few exchanged unpleasantries, or what is known in ’95 as ‘giving a bit of lair.’ The football team’s coach who is also my class teacher hears about it, bollocks me in front of my nan, and the next day I will be kicked off the team until Year 6 as a punishment, after we were explicitly warned in assembly the previous day to be on best behaviour and not to fight with or insult anyone from Manor Hall. I am my own worst enemy.
My nan can’t walk the hill to my house so she takes the bus and meets me at home. She makes me a fish finger sandwich, I have a quick bath to wash the mud off and then I walk up the road to the house of a kid from school, because both him and I along with two others have been chosen to represent our school in the evening in an inter-school Highway Code quiz at Steyning Grammar, a mysterious educational establishment we’ve only heard rumours about, out in the sticks. An inter-school Highway Code quiz; what the fuck? You couldn’t make it up if you tried! This kid’s dad, a strange man with a head full of thick white hair resembling the wool of an old sheep, is driving us. We pick up another member of the team on the way. The kid that will become my best mate a few years later and remain so throughout secondary school. The kid whose dad is driving us has similar hair to his dad, except it is blond and not white, and resembles a lamb rather than mutton. He is a strange child but a good one. He has recently bought two singles on tape. Both of them by the same Swedish band, Rednex. The songs are Cotton Eyed Joe and Old Pop In An Oak. He sits in the front seat next to his dad and plays the two tapes repetitively throughout the hour or so drive. His dad doesn’t utter a word of complaint. I want the car we are travelling in to crash into a tree and put an end to the torment.
We get to Steyning Grammar, a massive old scary school for posh kids. It’s more like walking into a cathedral. Loads of people have actually come to watch the quiz! Why? Why would you come and see this? All of the competing teams are seated high up on a stage in front of a packed auditorium. One of the other teams is from Manor Hall. The quiz starts and it is suddenly very tense. Everyone wants to win. Everyone really wants to win. Unfortunately we don’t win, due to the fact that we are docked points and later disqualified for cheating. Because it looks so dark out there where the audience is, we forget that we are completely lit up in front of them. It isn’t difficult for people to notice the not so subtle hand signals we are giving each other when one of our team doesn’t know the answer and is put on the spot. I have publicly shamed my school twice in one day. I will hear more about this tomorrow when the head calls me to her office to talk to me about how if I carry on choosing to play the fool and wasting my potential, a bleak future lays ahead of me. What does she know, man? What does she know?
Twenty minutes into the drive home, the man with the hair like the wool of an old sheep finally snaps and says to his son ‘I can’t any more!’ and then hits the eject button hard with his fist, takes out the tape and drops it onto his little lamb’s lap. We listen to Southern FM the rest of the way home. When Take That’s Back For Good comes on five minutes before arriving home, we all pretend that we hate it. Truth is though we all secretly love it. In 1995 everyone loves that song.