TWO GAMES AWAY FROM THE TITLE
Jennifer had spent days dreading the engagement party but it had turned out to be quite enjoyable and so, upon returning home, she suggested to Marcus that they open a bottle of wine, light a fire and let the evening continue for a little longer yet. She cued up a playlist of their favourite songs and they sounded at a low volume from the speakers that Marcus had insisted on positioning in the ceiling, claiming they’d enhance the sound effects from his PlayStation.
Standing in the kitchen, she used a sharp knife to cut chunks from three different blocks of cheese and placed them alongside some crackers on a wooden serving board. By the door to the hallway, a pair of muddy football boots had been discarded, and two footballs sat next to them. One was grimy and, having been used in countless matches, its days were numbered. The other was brand new, still in its box, ready for its debut at the next game. Washing the knife and leaving it on the island, she walked over and picked up the box before inhaling the smell of leather, which brought her back to schooldays, new satchels, spot cream and boys she’d once liked.
Jennifer had never been crazy about Patrick, the groom-to-be, mostly because of the hold he maintained over her boyfriend. They’d gone to the same school and had been playing football together for many years, their devotion to the game taking up much of Marcus’s free time, but that had been a long-standing commitment, initiated long before they’d even met, so she’d never protested. But while Marcus was not a heavy drinker, his nights out with Patrick always saw him coming home at three o’clock in the morning, throwing up in the toilet and completely unable to function the next day. More often than not, she’d find a flyer for some tragic club in his jacket pocket the next day, a pair of bare legs positioned provocatively to entice men like him, the not quite young but the not quite middle-aged either, inside.
More than this, however, there had been an unpleasant incident four years earlier when she and Marcus had first started dating that was never referred to anymore. Patrick had been single at the time and had made a pass at her behind his friend’s back. When she turned him down, he’d grabbed her by the wrist, and the expression on his face told her all she needed to know about him. His hatred for any woman who would say no to him. His loathing that that she had that power. Her wrist had bruised and she’d worn a long-sleeved sweater for a week, despite the good weather, so no one would see it and ask questions. When she eventually told Marcus what had happened, he’d heard her out but laughed it off, insisting that she must have got the wrong end of the stick.
‘But I didn’t,’ she told him. ‘He basically said that if we were to have sex, no one would ever need to find out.’
‘Did he use those words exactly?’
‘Well, no,’ she admitted. ‘Not exactly. But he really couldn’t have been any clearer. And when I turned him down, he called me a slut. Honestly, he looked as if he wanted to punch me.’
‘But he didn’t.’
‘No, but – ’
‘And he called you a slut for not sleeping with him? What sense does that make?’
‘That’s what guys do. You know that.’
‘He was probably testing you, that’s all,’ Marcus had said, making it clear that he didn’t want to discuss the matter any further. ‘Checking that you wouldn’t say yes. He was looking out for me, that’s all. Making sure that you weren’t… you know…’
‘Well. I mean…’ He’d had the good grace to look ashamed. ‘I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry.’
Jennifer had been infuriated by the idea that some random guy thought he had the right to ‘test’ her and equally annoyed that Marcus would condone such behaviour. There had been never been a repeat of the incident since then but Patrick continued to annoy her, rating girls in bars on a scale of one to ten when they were out together and using words like ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’ when talking to waitresses.
The truth was, Jennifer couldn’t stand the guy but she’d done her best with him over the years because Marcus loved him. And she loved Marcus. She was sure she did.
Unlike her boyfriend, however, Patrick had never seemed like a man who would settle down so she’d been surprised when he announced his engagement to Kate, a political journalist for one of the broadsheets. Kate was well-educated, read novels and had travelled widely. What she saw in Patrick, Jennifer didn’t know, but they seemed happy together and he’d even choked up when he made his speech at the party earlier in the night. In fact, so heartfelt were his words that Jennifer had come away from the evening determined at last to put her negative feelings towards him to one side. Perhaps he’d changed, she reasoned. People did, occasionally.
‘You had a good time?’ asked Marcus as she stretched out and lay her feet across his lap. He took one in his left hand and began to massage her toes.
‘I did,’ she admitted. ‘She’s nice, Kate, isn’t she?’
‘She is,’ he replied. ‘I mean, she’s a bit posh for my taste but yeah, she’s alright.’
‘She’s not that posh,’ said Jennifer, uncertain how she should take that remark. ‘I find her very interesting. She told me that she’s planning on taking a couple of weeks off this summer to study hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs and perhaps write a book about them.’
‘World Cup,’ said Marcus.
‘The World Cup is on this summer,’ he replied. ‘She’ll never get Patrick to go with her.’
Jennifer rolled her eyes.
‘And while we’re on the subject – ’
‘I know, I know. No holidays during August.’
‘It’s mid-June to mid-July, actually. But yes. I mean it only happens once every four years so – ’
‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘Noted.’
She stared into the fire, wondering why men cared so much about football. She wasn’t opposed to watching an important game when it was on television but to follow it week after week? She’d been ordering drinks at a bar once when a man she didn’t know had turned to her, seeing how all heads were focussed on a screen showing a match, and said ‘Imagine caring about who wins,’ before collecting his drink and walking away. She’d watched him go, thinking it an extraordinary remark to make to a stranger, but she’d never forgotten it. He was right, after all. Imagine caring.
And then there were the rituals that went along with the matches. Not so much the season tickets and the trips to godforsaken towns on the other side of the country, but the fact that so many of the men who played in local teams didn’t even seem to enjoy it. But they took it so seriously that it was almost embarrassing. And then there were the fathers screaming abuse at seven-year-old boys on the touchlines every Saturday morning in her local park; she’d witnessed her brother-in-law indulging in this psychotic behaviour on several occasions and been horrified by how this otherwise peaceful man transformed into a foul-mouthed bully when his son did not perform to his exacting standards. Marcus and Patrick trained on Tuesday and Thursday nights, then played on the weekends in a league with eleven other amateur teams. She went along sometimes to cheer them on, usually when she felt that she needed to put in a bit more effort on the relationship. She often wondered how they felt showering together afterwards, the homo-erotic hi-jinks that went on there that must take them back to when they were teenagers, delighting in smooth, athletic bodies before they’d grown hairy and formed the beginnings of doughy bellies. And why, she’d once asked Marcus, did professional footballers seem unable to have sex unless two or three of their team-mates were filming it on their mobile phones? He’d denied that ever happened but she’d pointed out that the internet was full of leaked videos proving that it did and he’d said that it was a strange question to ask so, in the end, she’d let it go.
Actually, she’d let a lot of things go over the years. She’d let go the fact that he still nudged her in Tesco whenever he saw an overweight woman buying chocolate, grinning like they were sharing some private joke. She’d let go the fact that he couldn’t seem to stop himself telling her whenever he saw a female bus driver or found himself on a plane where a female pilot introduced herself over the tannoy. And as for the search history on his browser? Well, she’d stopped looking at that long ago. It was too depressing.
But still, she loved him, she was sure she did. After all, he was a kind and loving man, considerate to her and her family, thoughtful, generous and loyal. He had a good job that some might have considered a little boring but that he seemed to enjoy because he almost never complained about it. And the football kept him fit. Really, he was a catch.
‘I still can’t believe Patrick’s getting married,’ said Marcus, re-filling their wine glasses and popping some cheddar into his mouth. ‘There’ll be a lot of heartbroken women out there the morning he says his vows.’
‘I imagine they’ll get over it,’ she replied.
‘You wouldn’t say that if you’d known him back in the day. Whenever a new girl came on the scene, none of us would even bother trying our luck if we knew Patrick was into her. There wouldn’t have been any point.’
‘The lads. On the team.’
‘So… what? You’d ask him first? For permission?’
He turned to look at her and she knew that he’d caught the irritation in her tone. ‘Not for permission, no,’ he said. ‘Just to see whether he was interested, that’s all. I mean there wouldn’t have been any point in me chatting some girl up for half an hour if he was going to scoop in the moment I went for a piss and take her off my hands.’
‘And that’s something he’d do, was it?’
Marcus laughed. ‘Oh God, yeah,’ he said. ‘He did it to everyone. He was notorious for it.’
‘What a guy,’ she said.
‘I know! I sort of envied him that, I suppose. He had more confidence than I ever did. I was a bit nervous of women back then, but Patrick always made sure that I stayed in my lane, you know?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘What does that mean?’
‘That I didn’t humiliate myself by trying for someone out of my league.’
She said nothing as she digested this, staring into the fire and wondering what this said about her.
‘Until I met you, I mean,’ he said after a moment and she turned to look at him. ‘Sorry, Jen, that might have come out wrong.’
‘You’re well out of my league.’
‘I said it’s fine. Let it go.’
Neither of them said anything for a few minutes, waiting for the awkwardness to pass, and when Marcus finally spoke again, his tone was extra enthusiastic.
‘Actually,’ he said. ‘I have a bit of news.’
‘Patrick asked me to be his best man.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘That’s nice. You must be happy.’
‘I knew he’d ask one of the lads but I didn’t know which one. I thought I was maybe the second or third most likely.’
‘I won’t have to do anything, will I?’ she asked.
‘No. But it means that I’ll be seated at the top table on the day so we won’t be together.’
‘That’s ok,’ she said with a shrug. ‘I’ll cheer you on from wherever they put me. You’ll have to make a speech, you know.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘But I don’t mind. He’s my best friend, after all. I just wasn’t sure that I was his. But I must be, mustn’t I? If he asked me to be his best man?’
She hoped that he was joking, expressing this desperate need for reassurance, but no, he was looking at her
with such a needy expression on his face that she almost felt sorry for him.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I suppose so.’
He stood up and threw a couple more logs on the fire, which meant that he wanted to stay up even later. She didn’t mind. She wasn’t quite in the mood for bed yet, the wine was nice and they had no work the following morning. When he sat back down, he switched his glass to the other hand and began massaging her other foot and she felt close to him, despite how annoying he could be. I do love him, she told herself. I really do. I’m sure I do.
‘Well he did owe me one, I suppose,’ said Marcus, taking a long draught of his wine. ‘I did him a big favour once and I think he’s always been grateful to me for it.’
‘What was it?’
‘Just something that helped him out when he needed it. It was a long time ago now. Eight, nine years, I think.’
She waited for him to say more but, to her surprise, he closed his eyes and held them tightly shut for the best part of thirty seconds. When he opened them again, she thought he was going to tell her what he had done for Patrick but no, he changed the subject.
‘Maybe she’ll ask you to be a bridesmaid,’ he said. ‘Kate, I mean. That way you could be at the top table too.’
‘Oh Christ, let’s hope not,’ she said, shuddering. ‘Anyway, that’s not how these things work. I don’t get to be a bridesmaid just because my boyfriend is the best man.’
‘No, of course not! I barely know the girl, after all. And don’t go putting any ideas into Patrick’s head, alright? I’ve been a bridesmaid three times for actual friends and each one has been more of a nightmare than the last.’
‘The only thing is,’ said Marcus, frowning. ‘If we were to get married one day, does that mean I have to ask him to be my best man too?’
She stared at him. He wasn’t going to propose, was he? You couldn’t propose after someone else’s engagement party, that was just tacky.
‘I have no idea,’ she said. ‘Anyway, if he’s your best friend, wouldn’t you want to ask him?’
‘It would be a bit of a kick in the teeth to my brothers, though, wouldn’t it? And Mum and Dad would be upset.’
He filled their glasses again and they sat companionably, looking into the flames, enjoying those moments when one of the logs hissed or spluttered. A piece of wood sparked out on to the tiles and they watched as its redness slowly turned to black.
‘So are you going to tell me?’ asked Jennifer eventually.
‘Am I going to tell you what?’
‘About this favour you did. For Patrick.’
He shook his head. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything. I can barely remember all the details anyway.’
‘Sure you can. You brought it up.’
‘It’s just so long ago. There’s no point. Honestly.’
‘Why not?’ She hadn’t been that interested before, but now that he was being so evasive she found that she really wanted to know.
He turned to look at her with a pitiful expression on his face, as if he was pleading with her to let it go, before turning back to the fire. ‘I mean, like I said, we were very young at the time. Just kids.’
‘If it was eight years ago, you were twenty-four.’
‘Well yes, but that’s young.’
‘It’s young, yes. But you weren’t kids.’
‘Oh come on, how bad can it be? Just tell me!’
‘Alright,’ he said. ‘But you have to promise not to get angry.’
‘Why would I get angry?’ she replied. ‘It was before we met. I don’t care what you did back then. I mean, assuming he didn’t murder someone.’
He laughed. ‘No, he didn’t murder anyone.’
‘So go on then. Tell me.’
‘Fine,’ he said with a sigh. ‘So, like I said, we were just kids – ’
‘You were twenty-four – ’
‘Yes, we were twenty-four. And we’d had a really good run in the league. The Saturday morning league, you know?’
‘In fact, we were only two games away from the title. Two more wins and that would be it. Our first time to be champions. We were training really hard. And partying hard most Saturday nights when we had our rest days coming up. We were only two games – ’
‘Two games away from the title, yes, you said that. Go on.’
‘And we were out at a party at one of the lads’ houses. I don’t remember whose. Maybe it was Jimmy Monk’s house, I’m not sure. Actually, it was his house. I remember because there were all these photos of him in the living room from his first communion and his confirmation and so on. Looking like butter wouldn’t melt, you know? Anyway, we’d all gone back there after a night on the lash. Most of the lads were there. And a bunch of girls too.’
‘I was waiting for that part,’ said Jennifer. ‘Oh God, you’re not going to tell me that you organised some horrendous orgy, are you? Filmed it all on your phones? And you all get together every so often to watch it back and remember when you were – ’
‘Jesus, no. What do you take me for? No, it was nothing like that.’ He sat up a little now, shuffling on the sofa in such a way that she knew he wanted her to take her legs off him, which she did, curling them beneath her instead.
‘Anyway, there was this girl,’ he continued. ‘Her name was Susie something.’
‘Susie something or Susie Tyler? I mean, if you know her name, you might as well say it.’
‘Yeah, Susie Tyler. And the thing is, she’d been around a bit.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means she liked a good time.’
‘Doesn’t everyone like a good time?’
‘Stop – ’ He paused and closed his eyes again. His tone had grown more defensive now. She’d never heard him speaking like this before. This unexpected mixture of insecurity and fear.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’ll stop. Go on.’
‘Alright, so it’s the next day and a few of us had stayed over in Jimmy’s house and there was a knock on the door. I get up to answer it, I’m still half asleep, and there’s two policemen outside. Well, one policeman and a lady policeman.’
‘Yeah, that. I still remember her, for some reason. The way she looked at me. Like I was pond scum or something. She didn’t speak first though, the policeman did. I suppose he was her boss. And he asked me whether I was Patrick Kilcale and I said no, that he was still asleep upstairs. I thought something terrible had happened, like one of his parents had been killed in a car crash or something. I asked them to tell me what was wrong but they wouldn’t, they just said they needed to talk to him. So I went upstairs and got him and when he came down they didn’t say too much, just that a complaint had been made and they needed to take him down the station to have a chat about it. They were very polite, I’m sure they knew there was no real substance to it.’
Jennifer considered this for a moment and tapped her fingers against the arm of the couch. ‘What was the complaint?’ she asked.
‘Oh, just something stupid. Anyway, they – ’
‘No, what was the complaint?’
He hesitated. ‘This girl, this Susie something – ’
‘Yeah, Susie Tyler. Well, she said that Patrick had, you know…’
‘That he’d what?’
‘She said that they’d had sex but that it hadn’t been… like, she hadn’t really wanted it, you know? That she regretted it now.’
Jennifer frowned and put her glass down. ‘Do you mean that he raped her?’
‘No, he didn’t rape her!’ said Marcus, raising his voice. ‘Jesus! This is Patrick we’re talking about! He could get any woman he wanted. I told you that.’
‘But she was accusing him of rape?’
‘I suppose so, yes.’
‘Well, she either was or she wasn’t.’
‘Alright, yes, she was. But look, she had a real reputation, this girl. She’d slept with a few of the lads already. So, you know, this isn’t the Virgin Mary we’re talking about here.’
Jennifer sat back and glanced in the direction of the bottle, wondering whether she could refill her glass without having to refill his. She could feel a knot forming at the pit of her stomach, a horrible twist of hopelessness, but she wasn’t ready to unravel it yet.
‘So what happened?’ she asked.
‘Well, of course Patrick told them that he’d never do anything like that, that she’d been well up for it. I mean, first off, you want to see what she was wearing that night. Seriously, she – ’
‘But what’s your part in all of this?’ she asked, sitting forward now and interrupting him. ‘What was the favour you did for him?’
He shrugged and ran a hand through his hair. ‘God, I’m probably making more of this than I need to. I’m not putting it right, that’s all. I’ve had too much to drink. I should tell you some other time.’
‘No, tell me now. Look at me, Marcus.’ He turned to look at her. ‘Tell me what you did.’
‘Well there wasn’t any real evidence anyway,’ he said quietly. ‘It was very much a he-said-she-said kind of thing. And like I say, Susie had a reputation and – ’
‘Can you stop with her fucking reputation?’
‘Yes. Sorry. Patrick told the police that she’d asked him to come upstairs with her, that she’d come straight over to where we were standing, taken him by the hand, and said, you know, I want you to come upstairs right now and fuck me. And that I’d been there and heard it all.’
‘And had she?’
‘It’s so long ago that – ’
‘Did she use those words exactly?’
‘Well, no. Not exactly. But she really couldn’t have been any clearer.’
‘So she didn’t.’
‘She hadn’t explicitly said it, no. But you have to remember, we were only two games away from the title and – ’
‘What has that got to do with anything?’
‘We’d never won it! And Patrick was one of our best players. We couldn’t afford for…. We couldn’t risk…’ He trailed off, closed his eyes again and reverted to silence.
They sat there for a long time, not looking at each other. The wine bottle was still half full and Marcus picked it up to refill his glass but when he tried to fill hers, she shook her head and put her hand across the top.
‘And what did the police do?’ she asked quietly. ‘I presume they interviewed you? And asked you whether you’d heard her say that?’
‘Yes, a few days later. When they were trying to figure out whether there was actually a case to answer or not.’
Jennifer nodded. She felt sick inside. She knew there was no real need to ask this question but she had no choice. ‘And what did you say?’
‘I said what Patrick had asked me to say. You know, that she’d taken him by the hand and said, I want you to come upstairs right now and fuck me.’
‘But she hadn’t.’
‘Not in so many words, no.’
‘Not in any words.’
Marcus said nothing but she could feel his mood changing. He was breathing, heavily, through his nose. Abruptly, he stood up and walked over to the window and looked outside with his hands on his hips. She watched him. She’d never seen him adopt this pose before and found herself unable to interpret it.
‘Look, it sounds worse that it really was,’ he said finally, addressing his words to the windowpane and not to her. ‘In retrospect, I probably should have stayed out of it. Let it all just play out in its own time because they would have got to the truth sooner or later. I mean, the girl was the town bike – ’
‘Marcus – ’
‘Well, she was, alright?’ he shouted, spinning around. ‘I don’t care! She just was! She was a total fucking slut and I’m not saying that means he gets to rape her, I’m just saying that there was no need for her to cause such a fuss over something she’d done a million times before with God only knows how many people. And he was my best friend, Jen. He needed my help. I knew he’d never do anything like that.’
‘But how did you know?’
‘Because I knew, that’s how.’
‘But how did you know?’
‘Because I’ve known the guy since we were kids,’ he said, raising his voice now. ‘He just wouldn’t. Every girl in town wanted to fuck him. He could have had any of them. So why would he rape one?’
‘Maybe because she turned him down?’
Jennifer stared at him, her eyes meeting his defiantly, and she swore she wouldn’t be the first to turn away. The silence between them was almost oppressive.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ he roared eventually. ‘We were only two games – ’
The sound of her glass shattering in the fireplace drowned out the rest of his sentence and the flames grew back into excited life. She was on her feet now and they both stared at what she’d done. A moment later, she picked up the other glass, his glass, but didn’t smash it. Instead, she drunk it, draining its contents in one go and closing her eyes as she felt the alcohol run through her body.
‘This was all years ago,’ said Marcus quietly. ‘Years and years ago. It’s not as if… I mean if it happened now, I …’
She turned away and walked towards the door.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
She turned back and stared at him. She felt like pushing him through the window. Instead, she made her way back into the kitchen and stood there, leaning over the island, her hands feeling cool against the marble. The knife was still there, the one she’d used to cut the cheese earlier, and she picked it up, happy to feel its menacing heft in her fist.
It wasn’t easy to burst it, and even to start she had to rip it from its cardboard casing. The knife slid easily enough through the skin but seemed to hold on to the blade jealously, as if it knew that its very existence was in danger, the steel and the leather connecting intimately in a vain attempt to protect the integrity of the ball. It took all her strength to pull the knife out again but repeated stabs came with increasing ferocity until the football conceded and began to lose its shape, folding over onto itself in disappointment at its thwarted ambitions.
She could hear him standing in the doorway behind her, breathing heavily, shaken by what he was witnessing, but she didn’t turn around and look at him. She wouldn’t.
Still, she loved him, she told herself. She was sure she did.