Rab Ferguson: {These Empty Stands}

After the match I go to my parent’s house to take Dad to the pub. Since the team moved to the outskirts of the city, the journey to games is too much for him. They live in the house I grew up in, on the same street as the old stadium. Mum watches from the doorway as I push his wheelchair down the pavement, then retreats back inside and shuts the door. I tell Dad that Billy and Irish Dave are waiting for us in the pub, and that Dave is probably living up to his nickname already.

‘Aye,’ he says, without emotion. He always used to hate Dave’s nickname. Irish Dave isn’t Irish. He does however drink large quantities of Jameson’s and Guinness, and is proud of it. Whenever Dad heard someone use Dave’s nickname, he would make it very clear that he thought it was stupid to boast about drinking or to say you were something you weren’t. Around Dad, “Irish Dave” tended to become just “Dave”.

‘There it is, still surviving.’ I stop and indicate with one hand the welcome sign arched over the entrance. The stadium seems part of the street, built so it sits back where the road turns, made from the same red bricks as the houses. Dad stares forward in a sunken hunch, though if he wanted to he could turn his head. Droplets of spit hang trapped in his spiky stubble and there’s a damp patch where his chin meets his football top. It’s obvious that Mum dresses him now. He never liked replica shirts; he said the kit was for playing, not watching. The man who called jeans and trainers too casual is wearing baggy jogging bottoms and sandals over his socks. She’s even given him a comb over, which he used to scoff at as an old man’s way of lying about being bald.

‘We saw some good games there, didn’t we Dad?’

He had taken me, Billy and Dave—who both lived on our street back then—to matches since we started school. We grew up there in the stands, rising from boys to young men, and he hardly changed, only an edge of dignified grey sneaking into his black hair and a few more lines drawing down from his cheekbones, defining his mouth. Then, in our last season in the old stadium, an invisible fist slammed into his stomach and he crumpled down into his wheelchair. We still took him to all the home matches that year, but towards the end I often noticed that he wasn’t following the path of the ball. When we scored and everyone was cheering, he just looked tired. It was a relief when Mum said he wouldn’t be able to make it anymore, so I wouldn’t have to watch as he didn’t.

‘Aye,’ he says after a while, and I push him away from the stadium.

Billy and Dave are at a table by the door and call us over immediately. They always make a fuss of how glad they are to see Dad, but they quickly run out of things to say to him. Billy slides out of his seat and crouches next to the wheelchair, describing the match, receiving the usual ‘aye’s and blank facial expressions in reply. Dave turns to me.

‘We’re going to break into the old stadium.’

Billy mentions a league table app he’s downloaded and gets a revolutionary ‘what’s that?’ from Dad.

‘Right,’ I say to Dave, ‘and just how Irish are you at the moment?’

‘Somewhere between a harp and a clover. But it’s still a good idea.’

Billy pulls his phone from his pocket and attempts to demonstrate the app, but Dad’s head drops forward and all he says is ‘aye.’

‘Think about it,’ Dave continues. ‘It’ll be perfect. It’s just sitting there, waiting to be made into flats. We can even use the old uprights. Billy says they haven’t taken them down yet.’

Billy looks over from next to Dad and grins.

‘You’re telling him about The Plan.’ He pronounces the capital letters. ‘Is he on board yet?’

‘He will be, once I get him a drink. What are you having? And what would your Dad like?’

‘Cider for me and a half-pint of shandy for Dad. He’s allowed the one.’

When he was first in the chair he used to argue about the shandy rule, saying they were diluting his beer and even then he only got half of it. Later he’d scowl at the glass, but drink it without complaining. He doesn’t even bother to scowl any more. I never liked beer, so when he first started buying me a drink after matches I always forced down a pint, taking large grimacing gulps when his head was turned. When he realised I didn’t like beer and asked why I kept on drinking it, I muttered that I didn’t know. He bought me a cider to try and told me that with drinks or anything else, it didn’t matter what other people thought. If you thought it was a good drink or a bad drink, then for you it was.

Dave returns and hands me a cider, putting the shandy down in front of Dad. Dad lifts it to his mouth and drinks, then places it back onto the table, no expression crossing his sagging face. Billy’s still crouched beside Dad’s wheelchair, gazing around the pub and trying to think of something else to tell him.

‘We’ll need a football,’ I say as Dave sits down.

‘What?’ he replies.

‘We’ll have to bring a football. There won’t be one in the stadium.’

‘Does this mean you’re up for it?’ Dave asks.

Billy looks over and raises his eyebrows eagerly.

‘I am. Or at least I will be once I’ve had enough to drink.’

I still hesitate after saying something like that, expecting Dad to explain exactly what he thinks of an idea you need to be drunk to agree to. But he’s slumped in his chair and even though he still sometimes speaks, his voice is gone.

I take Dad home, leaving Billy and Dave to finish their drinks and head to the stadium. Mum opens the door as we arrive. She smiles softly, but in the depths beneath her eyes she looks as tired as Dad.

‘Just in time. The carers will be coming soon. Did you boys have a good night?’

‘Yeah.’ I push down on his handles and heave him over the bump in the door. ‘He stuck to his half-pint of shandy.’

‘Very good,’ Mum says, edging round us to shut the door. ‘I remember when he was always waving to the bar staff or trying to convince someone to buy one for him.’

She sighs, her smile drawing thin then reappearing.

‘It was fun sometimes, wasn’t it? When he was being a bit of a rascal about it. Keeping an eye on him when he was coming up with cheeky ways to get himself a drink.’

She steps around the wheelchair and opens the door to Dad’s bedroom.

‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘I didn’t realise at the time. But yes, it was.’

I push him into his room. The bed has metal shutters on both sides and Dad’s hoist next to it with a harness hanging like a flag. The rest of the room is filled with sealed cardboard boxes.

‘Pretty much sorted to move then?’ I ask.

‘Oh yes.’ She stands in the doorway and nods. ‘You should come with us to see the new place soon. The flats are designed to be very accessible. Hopefully it will make things a little easier.’

‘I will do.’ I pause, looking at the path left through the boxes for the wheelchair to reach the bed. ‘Did you happen to find any of my old footballs while you were packing?’

‘Darling, the shed was full of them. I threw them all out, apart from the club ones your Dad used to get you for your birthday. They should be in here somewhere.’ She wanders across the room, edging past the back of Dad’s chair, and brings a box over to me. ‘I think this is the one.’

I crouch down and pull open the box. It’s full of limp, deflated footballs.

‘Uh, do you have—’

‘The pump’s in there too.’

I shuffle through the flat footballs then pull out a black bike pump with an adaptor needle tightened into the end

‘Thanks Mum.’ I pick one of the balls out of the box, turning it over to find the valve.

‘Are you out with Billy and Irish Dave tonight?’

I hold the ball between my legs and push the needle in.

‘Yeah, why?’ I say, driving the pump back and forth.

‘Because you three always do stupid things when you’re together.’

I stop pumping and look up at her, putting on a wounded face. Her eyes narrow.

‘Get on with it. And don’t bother giving me that look. I’ve lived through years of you three getting into trouble. Just try not to do anything too ridiculous tonight.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ I lie, then start pumping the ball again. Mum looks over at Dad and I realise he is staring at me. He opens and shuts his mouth, saliva trailing down from its corner, and Mum and I both lean towards him.

‘He’s not…’ Dad lets out a long wheeze, bending forward.

‘Honey?’ Mum says.

‘He’s not…’ He breathes heavily, in then out. ‘He’s not bloody Irish.’

For a few moments there is only the sound of his breathing, then Mum starts to giggle. I laugh and that sets Mum off even more, then me in turn, till we’re both in tears and letting out comical rasping sounds. Dad leans back in his chair, as if his work’s done.

‘Ah that did me good,’ Mum says later as she ushers me out of the door with an inflated football in my hands. I turn to her and she is smiling, with damp under her eyes. ‘I never thought he’d say that again.’

We say goodbye and she laughs to herself as she shuts the door.

Billy and Dave stand waiting under the stadium’s welcome sign and cheer when they see me approaching with the football.

‘Nice one!’ Dave runs across and grabs my shoulders. ‘We’ve been adding the final touches to The Plan.’

He lets go and Billy steps up next to him.

‘What we’re thinking is this,’ Billy gestures with two excited hands as he speaks, ‘they’re knocking it down for flats, right? So there’s probably not any security. Even if there is, it’s best to go in now, because they won’t be expecting drunk people yet.’

His logic tastes of alcohol, but I want to see what’s left inside that old place. There’s little point in waiting. I agree, and Billy puts his arm over my shoulder and turns me to face the corner between the main stand and the away end, where the club shop juts out.

‘There.’ He points at the shop. ‘Where the roof is low. That’s where we make our entrance.’

It looks like it should be easy enough to reach the metal gutter and pull ourselves up onto the roof. Just over it, I can see the top of one of the uprights. Dave swings his arm across my back, so I’m squeezed between the two of them.

‘If someone comes, we all bail,’ Dave says, leaning forward to speak to Billy as well. ‘If any of us are caught, we swear we were on our own, have never been near the stadium and in fact have no interest in the sport of football.’

Billy and I both nod. I imagine us caught inside the stadium, with the football, insisting on those three facts.

‘Ready?’ Dave asks, and we both nod again. Billy pulls his arm free and darts towards the shop. Dave and I charge forward as well, racing as if we were three young boys and Billy had shouted, ‘Last one to the wall’s in nets!’ The other two smack their hands against the wall to stop and I skid to halt before it, holding the football in front of my chest. Dave takes the ball and throws it up, so it bounces on the roof then rolls down into the gutter. From up close, the wall appears a lot higher. We jump up and down, grabbing at the edge, but only succeed in running our fingers across the bricks. Dave grips his fingertips onto the gutter, momentarily, then drops down. We all look at each other then at the ball stuck above us.

‘Leg up?’ Billy kneels and offers his palms on his thigh. Dave accepts, and uses Billy’s head as an impromptu foothold as he clambers up onto the roof. I follow and with Dave’s help manage to climb to the top while politely avoiding stepping on Billy’s face. Billy stretches his arms over his head and Dave and I pull as he walks up the wall, and then we haul him over the gutter.

We stand and turn. The grass is black in the night and looks overgrown and springy. The stands rise high around it, the seats hidden in shadow. Dave kicks the ball off the roof, over the waist-high barrier surrounding the pitch. It bounces twice on the grass then stops.

‘You think I can jump it?’ Dave asks. There’s at least two metres of concrete ground between the club shop roof and the barrier.

‘I wouldn’t—’ Billy starts, but Dave is already running. ‘Wait—’

Dave leaps off the edge.

‘—you mad bastard!’

He crouches as he hits the grass, dropping forward onto his hands and knees. He staggers to his feet then turns and throws his arms into the air with a triumphant shout. Billy rushes past me and jumps screaming after him. Dave dodges out of the way as Billy lands, runs briefly then tumbles to the ground. Dave offers his hand, and Billy takes it, pulls himself up, then raises a single fist in celebration. They both look round at me.

And I’m a teenager again, standing where I shouldn’t. Dad could walk around the corner at any moment. He’d yell at me to get down and I’d know that when I did I was in trouble. I could just climb down, but my friends are watching and they’ve already jumped. I imagine the tip of my foot catching against the ground, then the twist, then the crack.

If I hurt myself Dad would somehow know how it happened, or at least that I was doing something stupid and reckless. As a teenager on a roof, I think there must be a reason he always knows. That when he was a teenage boy, before his lanky frame filled out into my father, he leapt from rooftops too. Learning from it, he became himself.

I run and leap. I sail through the night and land as a small boy, teenage years still a distant dream. I walk, kicking clouds of sand in the Colosseum in Rome. Dad’s hand is on my shoulder, protecting me from being swept away into the flow of tourists, his other hand holding Mum’s. She’s smiling. Stone structures rise up from the sea of people, the old bones that once supported the arena. I realise for the first time that we’re not permanent, that our stadium too will eventually be empty, to crumble away and leave skeletal remains.

Not quite two decades later I look into the stands and see only a few rectangular blocks of seats yet to be removed, and it’s already begun. I didn’t expect it be so soon.

Billy shoots the ball towards Dave in the netless goal, who slaps it down then lunges over it when he sees Billy running towards him.

‘Think you can score past the Irish de Gea?’ Dave motions to roll the ball out to me.

I wave him away.

‘Definitely, but not right now. I’m going to walk across the main stand first. You guys play.’

Dave shrugs and rolls it out to Billy, who doesn’t even take a touch before leaning back and swinging his foot through the ball, sending it soaring over the bar. It bangs off the away end’s back wall and bounces down the concrete in the terracing.

‘You can get that,’ Dave says to Billy, who sighs and jogs after it.

‘Try not to lose the ball before I get back,’ I say, walking towards the main stand. I swing my legs over the barrier, and start up the steps we used to climb. On the right the handrail is gone, as are the seats. There are bolted metal squares dotted along the concrete, marking where they’d been. On the left there is a block of seats surviving, all that remains in this stand. I edge along our row and see that the four seats are still there, Dad’s on the final column before the emptiness that stretches to the far wall.

I sit in my seat next to his, watching Billy throw the ball down to Dave before running down the steps.

‘It’s a damn stupid thing to do, breaking into a football stadium.’

I keep my eyes on Dave, who attempts kick-ups and knocks it away after three, but in my peripheral vision I see him sitting up straight. I know he wears a shirt, and proper trousers, and his hair is thick and black. It’s the only way he was up here. We had to leave these seats once he was in the chair.

‘I take it you’ve been drinking,’ he says.

‘Yeah.’

Dave flicks the ball at Billy. It nearly hits his head as he awkwardly climbs over the barrier and back onto the pitch.

‘Something you like?’

‘Cider.’

Billy moves towards Dave doing step-overs, then bends his foot on the ball, tripping over himself and sending it backwards. To the side, Dad nods.

‘That’s good. You’re doing that right at least.’

Billy stumbles but stays on his feet. He looks round and Dave clatters into him attempting to grab the ball. They both fall on top of it.

‘Are you really here?’ I ask.

‘What have I told you? What matters is how it is for you.’

‘I didn’t think I’d see you like this again. I thought you were gone.’ I look directly at him, at the empty seat with rows of bare concrete stretching out behind it. ‘Out over that edge.’

He doesn’t speak again until I look down at Dave and Billy untangling themselves from each other and staggering to their feet.

‘I can’t be gone if I’m sitting here.’

Dave tries to pass the ball to Billy, but miskicks and sends it skidding off to the side of the pitch.

‘And when he’s gone, the wrinkled old man in the chair? Am I left with his ghost and not yours?’

‘What’s happened has always happened, and will always have happened. You know that.’

Billy collects the ball and runs with it then curves it past Dave and through the back of the netless goal.

‘Those two are the right sort. They’re good mates for you to have.’

Billy runs in circles pointing at the sky in celebration, while Dave stands with his hands on his hips, refusing to go and get the ball.

‘For a pair of complete and utter idiots.’

Dad stands and in the corner of my eye I see him turn away from me, towards where the seats are missing.

‘It’s a damn stupid thing to do, breaking into a football stadium. But once you have, it would be even worse not to have a kick about.’

I get up from my seat and vault down a row, then the next and the next. Billy sees me coming and runs past Dave to get the ball. I leap straight over the barrier and Billy boots it up towards me. I charge forward, the night air whizzing across my face, and catch the ball in my stride.

Ahead, Dave stands in the net, his arms stretched out, and in either side of my vision I see the stands are full. Dad is there, a thousand times over: upright in a shirt and trousers, collapsed in a football top and a wheelchair, a lanky teenager with features like my own. I shape to shoot and Dave tenses in the net. The stands are empty again, but I hear his voice cheering for me, back from where we used to sit.

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rabf1

Rab Ferguson is a York based writer of fiction and poetry. His work can be found in journals such as Litro, VoiceIn Journal, The Cadaverine, Pastiche and The City Fox, or on rabtales.wordpress.com. He was previously longlisted in the Storgy 2014 competition.

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