brief befriending

The first floor function room of his preferred local pub regularly screened live football matches.  Large, airy and high-ceilinged, it was an elegant old room which overlooked the Thames.  More than this, it was perfect for watching football.  No active bar, seldom anyone in there who wasn’t concerned by the action on-screen, Barry felt less self conscious about sitting on his own watching football.  Several lone men often dotted the room, sitting like toddlers transfixed by CBeebies.

It was clear that there had been a function in the room before he arrived.  The far side of the room was populated by little over a dozen football fans.  All of them Arsenal, Barry suspected: a smattering of red, a couple of those retro yellow away tops.  Yuck.  The near side of the room, where Barry had entered, was populated by a mixture of glassy-eyed emotional people who hugged a lot and didn’t know if they were coming or going.  Tables were littered with bunches of expensive looking flowers.  None of them wore black, but this was presumably at the request of the deceased.

Barry stood between the two zones in no-man’s land, his eyes on the screen in the near-side, waiting for the emotional huggers to disperse or sit down, so he could pick a seat.

“Are they coming or going?” Barry asked a man around his age who had taken a stool in the near-side half of the room, and nodded towards the cluster of milling people.

“Going, I think,” he replied, cheerfully enough, and looked back at the screen.

“Kaboul’s playing?” Barry asked.

“Yeah, I know,” the bloke said, shaking his head.

“Krancjar suspended, or..?”

“No, injured.  You support Spurs too?” the bloke asked.

“Yeah,” Barry said.  “Are they all Arsenal over there?” Barry nodded to the other side of the room.

“Looks like it.”

Still, the whispy congregation in the near-side of the room showed no sign of going, kept hugging each other like it was an elaborate modification of pass the parcel.  Barry tired of standing like that and put his pint down next to the other bloke’s.  He took a stool from under the television screen on the other side of the room.

“Mind if I join you here?” Barry asked.

“No, help yourself,” he said.  Seemed like a decent bloke, Barry thought.

They sat and watched the football, exchanged disappointment about the recent semi final defeat and observed the congregation eventually settle.

On the screen, the football was punched clear from a crowded Arsenal penalty area.  Tottenham’s nineteen year-old debutant Danny Rose arrived to meet it, carefully watching it fall out of the air, thirty yards from goal, before carving his left foot through the ball.  The connection was perfect.  It arrowed between players and over the goalkeeper’s ineffectively clawing glove into the roof of the net.

Barry and his new friend were instantly on their feet, freed to cheer loudly in a pub largely containing Arsenal fans, because they’d found each other.  All jubilant fists and almost embarrassed wide smiles.  Fuck em.  Strength in numbers, even if that number was only two and their voices were the only ones that sounded.  Men in the other half of the room glowered.  It was an important match for their team too.

A searingly brilliant goal meant Spurs were beating their arch rivals Arsenal, a usually superior team, 1-0 in a crucial game.  Barry didn’t stop smiling for several minutes.

Over the following seventy minutes of the match, the room’s population of Arsenal fans grew: more appeared in the near side of the room, meaning they were hemmed in.  It didn’t feel bad.  Barry chatted with his new friend easily.  They exchanged names and occupations during the half time break, offered to buy each other beers – although their drinking paces were mismatched on each occasion.  He was a solicitor for one of the large firms in town (rich bastard then, Barry surmised), newly married, about to buy a house out in Kingston after five years renting in this area further up river.

Barry envied but liked him, and volunteered information about himself.

He always found meeting and conversing with men much easier than meeting and conversing with women.  Part of it was the neutered threat, the lack of any ulterior motive for innocent discourse.  Being relaxed.  He imagined he came across as a fairly ordinary bloke, happy to have a blokey conversation about football or business.  He was comfortable in this domain; no pressure, no relentless paranoia about how he was being perceived and judged.

It sounded obvious from the outline he gave of himself that there was no female or significant other, but he always wondered if he should qualify his sexuality more deliberately than saying I Play Football (and therefore I must be straight?)  If instead, he should say: “So you know, in case there was any faint doubt in your mind: I am single and straight.  Just useless with women,. Ok?”  Or if he should create a girlfriend to seem more regular and reliable.

Early in the second half Gareth Bale calmly sidefooted Spurs into a two-goal lead.  Again they leapt from their seats, clinched this time and amidst the heady euphoria, even came close to hugging.  It was a struggle to believe their two goal advantage.  The rest of the room hated them, their disdain palpable.  They giggled, still fixed on the screen.  God, this was fun.

Both men wondered aloud about doing this again, mentioned the remaining Spurs fixtures and whether they were on television, if they would come here to watch it.  Both said they probably would.  Barry wondered about swapping numbers, regretting again that he still hadn’t replenished his wallet with business cards.  Much easier to pass off a card with contact details, Barry thought, than go through that whole mobile device tapping game, which does feel a bit gay.  Even asking for a number in that situation, it was a bit much, awkward, and a declaration of Having No Friends.

Heurelho Gomes contorted himself impossibly to keep Arsenal at bay once again.  Barry exhaled, sipped his pint and shivered off the phone number idea, glad that he hadn’t done any such thing and compromised himself like that.

Arsenal scored, making the final ten minutes of the game a terrifying horror film.  Gomes continued to make a string of fine saves.  Arsenal fans in the room cheered louder and louder, evermore animated and anguished with each spurned chance, increasingly bitter towards Spurs and their fans as they revelled in the slender lead.  “Yeah yeah, well done Spurs, you’ll still come 5th!” one growled at the screen, revolted by what he was seeing.

“I Just Love The Fact We’re BEATING ARSENAL!  That’s all I really care about!” Barry said quite loudly to his companion but not really to his companion, eyes concentrated on the screen.  He was more drunk on the football than on the one and a half pints he’d consumed since kick off.  It looked possible now, they could hold on.  They really could do this!  His grin was spreading, he afforded himself the moment of being a dick.

The final whistle sounded, relief and joy were absorbed.  A final celebratory, congratulatory clinch.  It would be remembered, this game, by all the fans who’d witnessed it.  They did it.  Final dregs downed, no numbers swapped.  Barry needed to visit the Gents, his new friend had to get back to his wife.  “Maybe see you in here again then.”

It being London, they didn’t.

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