I just love my football.
I don’t have enough skill to write a letter home, so I referee five-a-side games to enjoy it close-up. Some great players here. Dozens of teams running about side-by-side fields as if tonight’s games will influence the rest of their lives. I love their joy at the art they create with that round thing. But there’s always one or two out to muck it all up. Not by trying to stop others play – there’s room for that and I’m not a purist snob. No. What I mean is this prick who has just threatened my life, standing on his tippy-toes because he’s a couple of inches shorter than me, his right index finger pointing at my left eye like he’s going to use it as a dagger. Because I made a call he didn’t like.
“I’m going to chop your fucking head off, stick it on a railing, let the other players see what kind of twat you are then.”
His dot-eyes pinch so tight together they almost merge.
It’s a dirty Sheffield night where the rain seems to stain the city rather than wash it clean. It’s not a particularly heavy rain, but it needles its way through your fabric and bleeds away your warmth. Makes this Cyclop’s attitude all the harder to bear.
I’m used to abuse in this game. I referee four games four nights a week. Supplements my income from the warehouse day-job. Pays more per hour, though I get less hours. I like it. I always shrug off the abuse, bite back with an F-bomb that makes most either quieten down, or force a “shit, yeah you’re right” grin, and I’m thankfully ignored for the rest of the game.
Of all the threats that people have spat at me, I believe this one. I could report the player to the facility manager. Get him banned. I won’t. He’s sent a shiver down my spine, and no manager is going to keep this shithead away. Even his own team look scared of him, laughing nervously at his threats. I see it as a challenge.
He must see my eyes narrow. Maybe he sees my upper lip reach for my nose, showing my upper teeth.
He jabs me in the chest, says, “Keep looking over your shoulder.”
I hold my breath so I don’t have to infuse his mushy pea aroma. I shake my head, keep my eyes on his. I’m not a violent person. I love a good laugh, enjoy hosting my friends, and looking after them with the odd slap-up meal, even if it is always spaghetti Bolognese. The only place I like confrontation is on the footy field.
His eyes seem to cross, surprised that I don’t drop my head to show deference. Sod that. He’s just declared war. I look at the game card, check his name:
I let him play on. The other team say nothing. I have my whistle ready for whenever he’s near the ball, alert to any opportunity to piss him off. The other team are dominating possession, full of tricks and crisp passing, shifting the ball in seams between their opponents. The way that nineteen year old one-touches a pass by spinning it off the outside of his little toe, beating two oncoming defenders … it’s art.
The kid gets it again, but this time Billy anticipates. He knows he’s not going to get the ball. He takes the kids ankles instead, going through him from behind. The kid’s face is scrunched like his feet have been held over a flame. He doesn’t roll around, but his teeth are gritted and a pained tear has time to roll before the rain washes it away.
I blow the whistle, reach for a yellow card.
“Fuck off,” Billy hisses, charging towards me.
His face is so close I can smell vinegar mingling with the mushy peas. Anger makes his caterpillar eyebrows meet in the middle.
“Back off,” I say, trying to keep my voice level.
“I already warned you,” he says under his breath.
I know the difference between a threat and a promise. My cogs grind. I think about when I finish work. I have one more game after this, and I’ll leave about ten. This facility lies in the middle of an industrial wasteland. The ‘last game’ staff can’t leave until all the players have exited. We’ll all go to our cars sprawled around the neighbouring streets. There won’t be any eyes to bear witness. I look at the spikes on top of the railings and can’t help giving my neck a rub.
“Willy,” I say. “Don’t turn this yellow into a red.”
“Billy,” he spits. “My name’s Billy.”
“Okay, Willy, I get it. Now get on with the game.”
I blow the whistle a minute later, ending the game. Willy’s team have scraped a 2-2 draw through sheer intimidation. I hear the other team mutter complaints about why he never saw red.
I referee the last game, amazed I only blow the whistle twice. No problems, just two teams who want to play, without ego. I catch glimpses of Willy through the facility’s fence, staring through the bars at me. I think of my lonely car standing alone beneath a graffiti-choked brick wall, a single street lamp showing me the way back to its old charms. The car park had been too packed to get a spot. A slither of light bounces off Willy’s shaven head like a warning beacon.
I clock off, usher our last customers off the premises, help lock the building, think about having a couple of the other referees escort me back to my car – safety in numbers and all that – but I can’t see him anymore.
“See you later, lads,” I say to two of my colleagues.
“See you, Fraser,” they reply.
I watch them drive off, then head for my car. I refuse to take a beating. Or worse, die a bachelor. I straighten my back, keep my head raised. Look like I mean business. My Renault looks untouched by anything other than weather. I pop the boot, hear footsteps, plant my feet a foot apart for ballast. I’m going to take a hit. Come on: give me a big purple bruise. I reach into the boot, take hold. I turn my face into a punch that knocks me back into the boot-lid. Fire sears my senses. I wonder if I’ll recover. A dozen or so blinks clear my vision. I’m glad I stayed on my feet, relieved I kept my grip. I hear Billy step in for the next punch. I swing the wheel-lock two-handed, hear his cheek collapse, splintering. The follow-through is quick enough to smash his nose to the right. He falls, rolling on his back, hands to his face. I can see the darkness ooze between his fingers. I grab his boots and drag him onto the pavement. I wouldn’t want him to get killed by a passing car.
I shake my head at him, wondering what he’s missing to ruin a perfect game of football. I think about throwing the red card I should have shown him earlier on his writhing frame.
But that would have been cheesy.
Jason Beech writes mostly crime fiction. When he’s not smashing a keyboard into submission, he’s kicking a ball around New Jersey. You can find his work on Amazon, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine, and Plots with Guns. Spanking Pulp Press will publish one of his shorts in an upcoming anthology.