in or out

His studs sank readily into the sodden turf and he surveyed the endless expanse of football pitches through thick hazy drizzle.  Paul did a quick cost / benefit analysis, standing a few short paces onto the turf, several away from the clubhouse and dressing room his team-mates were still filtering out of.  He wasn’t feeling great and had been surprised his voice still sounded so droney and infected when he spoke for the first time in a while.  It was shakeable though, surely the last dregs of illness, forgettable if he could play from the start.  Then there was the vulnerable hip / lower back / hamstring / whatever the hell it was.  A dull ache which twanged sharply on standing up after crouching or leaning down, just as it had when he’d plucked a pair of long socks from the kitbag.  It could capitulate entirely or he could run through it, numb it by playing, forget it and, who knows, that might even right it.  But he wouldn’t want to enter the match as a substitute then leave it two minutes later after his first full sprint or leap left him in a pathetic crumpled heap, and his team one man short.  

The manager had pestered him to play during the week, text messaged and called.  Paul had told him he wasn’t definitely sure: he was ill and still struggling with an injury but would let him know towards the end of the week.  An abrasive and occasionally abrupt Northern Irishman, his manager had sniffed at him, said ok.  Paul had messaged him to say ok,  he was in, the previous day.  Then he immediately received a one word reply: sub.  Cunt, Paul thought. 

The weather became more relevant.  If it was temperate and sunny, he wouldn’t mind going sub.  If it was grey and cold and raining, his appetite for standing on a touchline for 45 minutes of a Saturday afternoon wouldn’t be as great.  And the reasons for him being sub were sound enough: his attendance had been poor over recent weeks, through the injury and illness.  It was reasonable, it wasn’t like they were competing at any sort of high level.  The team were crap regardless and remained so in his absence, losing each game by a margin as fat as their goalkeeper.  It wasn’t like he was investing in a meaningful, dramatic and poetic competition here.  They would in all probability lose horrendously and it wouldn’t be a fun experience.  In the changing room one youngster told Paul he had been missed out on the pitch, and was angry when Paul revealed he was to be substitute.  “That’s fucking bollocks.” 

The opposition – vaguely familiar to Paul – were heading out to warm up over a full half hour before his team would mobilise.  They exchanged half glances and nods with Paul as they passed in the tight corridor.  Paul was always on time but didn’t know why.  Nobody else was.  His team-mates, from the manager down, were always predictably and inevitably slow to gather and change.  There had been a handful there when he opened the changing room door, amiable greetings, handshakes and banter exchanged, kit forced into his arms.  So he had dutifully changed.  Numbers looked desperate for a period, then they had surged into the changing room with minutes left to the official kick off, which was only ever a rough guideline.    

So, if we now have enough numbers..? Paul thought, standing there in limbo between clubhouse and pitch.  He walked back to the building and met the Northern Irishman at the bottom of the steps. 

“How many players you got now?” Paul asked.
“Thirteen,” he replied.
The obvious next question was whether that thirteen included Paul or not, but he didn’t ask it and the manager didn’t confirm.
“Ah, you’re comfortable then.  Look, I think I’ll do one then,” Paul said, meaning he’d go.  “I don’t much fancy standing around in this,” he added, gesturing the dank grey weather by way of explanation.
“Well it’s only 45 minutes then I’ll stand around in it.”
“Yeah, but I’m not feeling so great anyway so…”
There was a small pause as they looked to one another for a reaction or decision, players from other teams walked around them, heading to the pitches.  Paul knew it was a mutiny of a sort, but he wasn’t throwing a tantrum about it.  Just changing his mind.
“Look, good luck yeah?” Paul said, and headed back inside to change out of his kit.

Other teams were marching from the building towards the park as he left, the blustery drizzle still falling and sweeping sideways.  It added to a peculiar sense of finality.  The next scheduled game was somehow the last in the season, despite the many January and February postponements, underlining the relatively small size of the league.  Most of its teams were far better than Paul’s and their final game was a double header: two matches of an hour each, both of which they would almost certainly lose heavily.  He’d give it a miss.   That match a month earlier could have been his last for the club, especially considering he was still toying with the idea of leaving the city.

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