Unedited extract from the novel “Up the Wooden Dancers.”
It was impossible even for a homeless young man to be unaware that the World Cup was afoot. Over the past few weeks, every time he drifted through the streets of Formby, a particular young man saw in pub windows that England v Tunisia was going to be live.
Ryan Brady, who’d been homeless for fifteen months, liked football and used to be very good at it. In his early teens he joined the Everton academy and was widely tipped by those around Goodison to aspire to great things; push his way into the first team by the time he was sixteen and, who knows, one day play for England.
At the time, Ryan, never out of his football kit, was enjoying much support from his father and teachers alike. Until one day, for no apparent reason and certainly no explanation, his father upped and left the family home. What was once a happy unit was blown apart and his mother, always with a penchant, began to drink more heavily. This was a slippery slope to be on, and one which would eventually take its toll on Ryan… with his mother turning to drink and turning her back on him, he nevertheless took it upon himself to help her, and even found a job in a warehouse to feed her addiction. But the more he supported her the more she seemed to thirst for the bottle and the more Ryan’s game suffered. Aware of his plight, the Football Club initially gave every encouragement, but gradually this waned as he was often forced to miss training and inevitably his skills began to desert him. And it was a bitter blow as Everton were forced to give Ryan the bad news that he hadn’t quite made the grade. He would never give up the dream of course, and though now forced to remain in his dead-end job, he’d always be looking to kick a ball.
But after months of showing his skills and netting almost every game in the Sunday League, a hundred tiers down the system, he had another sudden setback when his mother got knocked down by a car as she drunkenly made her way home.
Though his Aunt Doreen took him in, Ryan couldn’t get on with her boyfriend Tyrone and a fractious relationship eventually came to blows when Ryan lost his job so couldn’t pay his way. So with no work and nowhere to call home, Ryan found himself on the streets, still in his Everton top, trackie bottoms and well-worn trainers.
And so came the day when England opened their World Cup 2018 campaign with a match against Tunisia. Penniless and hungry, Ryan combed the streets hoping for a meal and a chance to see the game. Moved on by the police for begging, he traipsed to a back street where he counted up his shrapnel and knew he’d just about earned a pint. Not enough for the meal, but such was his hunger to see the match he reckoned if he could find a pub, sit in a corner and eke out his drink over a decent view of a screen, that would do.
In a pub called The Grapes he bought a pint of Landlord’s and scanned the filling room. But just as he reached a spare table a man got up from his seat and barged into him, causing his pint to escape his grip and smash to the floor.
“Sorry mate,” said the bloke, automatically. But when he saw Ryan’s down-at-heel state he was visibly less apologetic, simply heading to the gents’ with not even an offer of recompense. With that, Ryan headed for the door, knowing his chances of staying put without a drink would be almost impossible. He thought about trying but couldn’t take the idea of being turfed out for vagrancy – he’d already had daggers from the barmaid who’d come out to brush up the broken pint.
“Wait,” said a voice.
Expecting some sort of abuse, verbal or otherwise (people like him could often get a smack on the nose as a reward for being homeless) Ryan turned to see the voice belonged to a woman, about his age, brown-haired, attractive.
“Let me buy you a drink,” she said.
“I saw what happened. He could’ve at least bought you a drink. So let me.”
“Are you sure?” asked Ryan, surprised.
“Of course. Sit down and join us.”
Taking his seat, Ryan thanked the girl and said his name was Ryan, and she said hers was Rachael and her friend’s was Abi.
“A pint of Landlord’s,” said Ryan, gratefully.
Not being used to this kind of charity, Ryan said as much as he thanked Rachael again.
“No need,” she said, “Here to watch the game?”
“Yea,” he confirmed, as Abi set three drinks down, adding that he’d been looking forward to it for weeks but because he was homeless there was no guarantee of seeing it, and he was once a footballer himself and nearly played for Everton.
“Well now you can see the game,” she said, “you can see it with us.”
“I don’t have any money,” he said.
“We do,” said Abi, perhaps a little younger than Rachael, blonde, coy and pretty in a way.
“Cheers,” said Ryan.
The conversation would’ve gone on, but now the anthems had been sung and the game was ready to kick off to an expectant murmur in the bar. They’d chat a little, the two women and Ryan, during the game, mostly about the game but sometimes about his story and theirs, which was that they were both in HR and big earners but they were currently sharing a house in both their names but one day they’d both be on the property ladder, and that it was in Formby a stone’s throw from the beach.
Amid these snippets, and loads of crisps torn open on the table, they commented how England were playing well, the kind of football young and hungry players ought to play, but chances were going begging – Lingard alone could’ve had three – and when Walker gave away a soft penalty it looked like typical England all over again.
During half time, Rachael said it was her shout and went to the bar. Noting Abi wasn’t quite so loquacious, Ryan felt self-conscious and awkward, and was glad when Rachael returned with three more pints.
“Thanks again,” said Ryan.
“Stop saying thanks,” said Rachael, firmly.
“Promise I’ll never say it again,” he said, and they all laughed.
The second half wasn’t quite so good, they agreed, and it looked like a measly point against a stern defence. Until up stepped Kane to find the net with a pinpoint header in the dying moments causing the whole pub to erupt. And in that moment amid cheers and toppled bottles, something else happened – Rachael gave Ryan a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek in celebration. In the moment Ryan didn’t think much of this.
But as the pub began to empty following post-match discussion, Rachael and he had one of their own. With Abi nipping to the ladies’ and promising another round on her return, Ryan decided then was the moment to comment on her kindness.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, “being so kind?”
“You promised you wouldn’t say thanks,” she said.
“I’m not,” he said, “I just want to know why. People are never this kind to me, not since dad went.”
“Don’t you realise we’ve met before?” said Rachael.
“Christmas Eve,” she said, “At church.”
It’s true that, on Christmas Eve, Ryan was facing a brittle night on the street and knowing midnight mass was about to happen, he’d slipped into the church and was surprised to be ushered to a pew at the front as the place was so packed. It was warm here and, while not expecting to care for the service itself, it offered an hour or two of comfort. He’d never had much truck with religion; his mum went to a Catholic School in Liverpool but that was as far as it went, and from what he remembered of his dad he was deeply suspicious about most things. But after an hour of sermons and carols he began to find some peculiar warmth of a different kind – he wouldn’t say religious, more spiritual, but anyway it made him cry. At first the tears were perfunctory, dripping occasionally, but gradually they gave way to complete and utter sobbing, so much so that his trackie top was sodden.
“I gave you a tissue,” she said, and just then Ryan remembered. Through his sobs he’d felt a hand on his arm and hoped it was his dad, but he turned to see a young woman and her family, and she was offering a tissue to dry his eyes.
“Thanks,” he’d said, and she’d said there was no need.
And as they filed out into the night he’d wished her a merry Christmas and she’d returned the compliments of the season and asked if he’d somewhere to go. “No,” he’d said, telling her he’d nowhere and nobody his mum was dead and he hadn’t seen his dad for years.
“To this day I wish I’d invited you to ours for Christmas dinner,” she said, “It was just going to be Abi and me.”
“That would’ve been nice,” Ryan said, as Abi returned with more drinks. By now the bar was almost empty, just the three of them and a group of stragglers including the bloke who smashed his beer, ganging up on the fruit machine. Recalling again that night in the church, Ryan described how he came to be in the pew, and how he came to realise he was having a spiritual experience.
“I’m not that religious,” confessed Rachael, “Dad always insists we go for mass. That’s the only time for me, except for weddings.”
“Not much chance of it being your own,” blunted Abi, and they all laughed.
“It’s true I don’t have much luck with men,” said Rachael, “Anyway most of them are shits.”
“Thanks,” said Ryan, faux-offended, and they laughed again.
“What did you do?” she asked, “For Christmas dinner?”
“I can’t remember,” he said, genuinely, adding that months on the street can fuck with your mind.
They had another last drink after that, and chatted pleasantly the three of them, till Abi said she was ready for home.
As they filed into the close June night, happy the game had been won, Ryan said he wouldn’t say thanks again but anyway thanks. And as they went to part company, Rachael reached into her bag and rooted in her purse.
“No,” he said, “You’ve done enough.”
“I’m not giving you money,” she said, “It’s my card, my address.”
“Oh,” he said, taking the card.
“You’re welcome any time,” she said, “Promise you’ll come?”
“I promise,” he said, pocketing the card and thinking to himself he’d probably forget it come the morning. But then a wonderful thing happened, she kissed him on the lips.
And then she said, “In fact, come on. We’ll get a cab.”