Summer was shit without soccer. I missed it, like I was bereaved. So when Gerald called to invite me to the opening away game of the new season, I was pretty much bursting to say yes. Only problem was, because of Newton Hills FC’s hooliganism irregularities of the previous season, we had been ordered to play in a different league - 400 mile round trips up the A1 to places like Sinderby and Wetwang in the Sanebunnies Super-Soft Bog Rolls Northern Division Two. Nevertheless, I had been looking forward to our visit to Wetwang Academical’s famous Village Green stadium. Apparently its north stand had a commemorative plaque in honour of Wetwang’s former mayor, the deceased TV impresario, Richard ‘Twice Nightly’ Whiteley. I was planning my own quiet visit to the plaque and a whispered ‘two from the top, Carol’ when Gerald wasn’t looking, but had decided against my Whiteley-inspired tie. No: Wetwang would be a trip that required full Newton Hills combat gear – the black Fjallraven jackets, black jeans and Adidas classics, a uniform of time-honoured hoolie tradition. Gerald picked me up in his souped-up Volvo and we crept up the A1, his speed camera detector’s incessant noise battering my brain. After a while, I developed the inexplicable desire to open the door and roll out into
traffic, Starsky and Hutch style. Not that the door just opened you understand; I would have to overcome his
wife’s complicated child-lock system first. By which time, Gerald would most likely have pulled over onto the
hard shoulder and run me over, like the chap from East 17.
‘We’re making good time, Gwawnt,’ he said instead, daring me to contradict him.
I wondered if Gerald would listen when I told him that the only good time we were making was in relative terms. Compared to the length of time it would take to form, say, stalagmites, we were positively tearing up the road. On course for our right pwoppah tear-up
‘Fancy a stop yet?’ Gerald asked. ‘Nutbush Services approaching on the left in a mile or so.’
On every away trip we ever made, Gerald had rattled on about Nutbush Services, talking it up like some fabled Shangri-La: The last services that still sells diesel for under a pound. Apparently only proper long-distance truckers knew about this place. And Gerald, of course. Gerald knew about the place because of the CB radio, and because he always knew the best place, the cheapest place to go for anything under the sun.
‘Is it really called Nutbush?’ I asked, wearily. ‘Well… there’s that Tina Turner song. Nutbush City Limits…’ ‘Well, I don’t know about no Tina Turner,’ he said, flicking down his electric window to wave a monster of an articulated lorry past, ‘but back in the day, Nutbush was ace for a tear-up. Think about it Gwawnt; every Saturday, hundreds and hundreds of hoolies are up and down the 1’s A and M, following their team. You got lads from Leeds, maniacs from Manchester, loonies from London. And everyone needs to stop for a whizz once in a while. And when they do, it all goes off at places like Nutbush. Honestly, sometimes it’s about the only place to go for a pwoppah tear-up these days.’
‘Or West Ham’s Upton Park,’ I interjected, remembering the scenes from that infamous night a few weeks back
when supporters clashed in and out of the ground against stalwart psychopaths from Millwall.
‘The Boleyn Ground,’ corrected Gerald. ‘But yeah; that was a decent result that match. Well plotted-up, just
like the old days. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.’
‘What?’ I gasped. ‘You were there… at Upton… I mean; at the West Ham-Millwall game?’
Gerald grinned: ‘Cowse I was, Gwawnt. Wouldn’t have missed that for the world. It’s not for nothing they call
the fizzy-pop cup the hoolie cup these days… Think about it. Nobody wants to go to them league cup matches any more so tickets get on the black market. People like me can go and buy ‘em off a tout and get in no ‘assle, even if we were banned from West ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam over ten years ago.’
‘You were on the pitch?’ I asked, already knowing the answer. Already remembering the images of those great lumbering dinosaurs in Burberry caps invading the turf with their kids in tow, reliving misspent youths as they snarled in the faces of the fitter, younger, but ultimately defeated Millwall players. Already knowing that one of them was Gerald.
‘But what about the code? What about staying with your non-league team? What about…’
‘It’s every man for himself in the hoolie game, Gwawnt,’ he said, carefully. ‘You know that.’
‘That’s the beauty of Nutbush,’ Gerald continued. ‘It’s off the beaten track. Most people just exit the motorway, miss it and go straight back on, onto the next one. Nutbush is just far away enough to put off all but those in the know.’
I’d seen some pretty bad motorway services in my time, but this place took the biscuit. In fact, it took the
biscuit, used it to mop up some of the spillages around the arthritic, choked toilets, doused it in engine oil
and then set said biscuit alight. Then it flogged it back to you at a price which made grown men cry. I was
sitting in the café-part, pretending for all I was worth that I was leafing through a red top paper. I had the
funny feeling that to be seen in here reading the Culture section of The Guardian would be tantamount
to happily ambling back into those piss-streaming toilets, getting on your knees and sucking any one of
those bear-like lorry drivers off for the price of a clip round the ear when you were done.
I peeked out from over my paper, feeling like Attenborough watching the wildlife. There was a real hierarchy in the caff. The eastern European lorry drivers (greasy Poles; fat, bouncing Czechs) were shunted off into a corner where they whispered together conspiratorially. By the fruit machines sat the beached-seal soccer supporting Brits in their scarves, ham-fisting their way through mountainous plates of gloopy breakfast despite it being more like lunch time. Occasionally, one of their number would pipe up with a song through a mouthful of bacon, only to be quickly hushed by their companions.
I sat in the middle of the room, in no-man’s land. On a table not too far away from me were an ageing couple who looked lost when they came in, and now too scared to ask. We were the civilians in this brutal war scene. Civilians who were about to become collateral damage.
I was waiting for Gerald to emerge from the toilets. He’d been in there a worryingly long time. Even at the time he ordered it, I’d known his choice of a chicken tikka pasty was a foolishly brave one. But when the waitress wobbled out with it, not even bothering to hide the fact that she was scraping off the dirt, I’d realised it was more than bravery on Gerald’s part. It was sheer, bone-headed stubbornness. Eventually, he staggered out of the bogs, massaging both arse cheeks through his black jeans.
‘Fahkin hell,’ he said as he approached the Formica table. ‘I knew I should have asked for red sauce with it.’
And then Gerald described to me in great detail just how painful that shit had been for him, even demonstrating the part where he had to thump his feet on the toilet floor just to take his mind off the agony. Unfortunately, the display managed to alert the rest of the animals in the caff to our presence. The Brits stopped shovelling forkfuls of beans into their cavernous mouths, the Eastern Europeans stopped whispering. Even the old, lost couple looked a little disapproving.
The screech of a placcy-chair being moved back broke us out of our reverie. A honey monster of a Newcastle fan
lumbered out of his chair; bare-chested, already covered in red sauce. He was so Newcastle he’d shaved his
chest hair into stripes.
‘Whae are you fellahs haway the lads in here, like?’ he asked, or at least that was what I thought he asked. I
couldn’t make out what he was saying, what with that accent of his. What I could make out was the fact that two
of his cronies had stood up behind him and were now sneering and pointing at Gerald and me.
‘We don’t want any trouble,’ I said, as politely as I could, shooting an appealing look over their shoulders to the old, lost couple. Surely one of them would have a mobile?
‘Fahk that,’ said Gerald, calmly. ‘Trouble’s my fahkin middle name.’
It wasn’t. I knew Gerald’s middle name was Grainger, Gray, Goodwillie, Shittu, Murphy, Mycock, Harkins (P), Harkins (A), Anderson, Hopkins, Webber (named for the South Western Fried Chicken Chicken Dippin’ Cup Quarter-Final team from 2008) after that passport scam Gerald tried to get me in on a few months back. But now was the time to prove once and for all that I was Newton Hills. Or at least, pretending to be Newton Hills for
‘Tha needs ta change that by deed-poll, like’ said the dead-eyed Newcastle fan. ‘Haway aboot we calls you battahed, like?’
Gerald smiled a Cheddar gorge of a smile, picked up a plastic tray from our table and, for a moment, the world stood still. He launched the tray, complete with its rubbish-heap of pasty-wrappers, newspapers, and a cup of lukewarm honeysuckle and mouthwater tea straight into the face of the big Geordie. And then he started to run. In seconds I was running too, but not as quickly, and I didn’t have the head start.
‘Gerald!’ I yelled. Already I could smell the Newcastle fan behind me; that overwhelming stink of chips n’ cheese and Newcastle Broon. Already I could feel his sausage fingers reaching for me.
‘Gerald, come back!’ I yelled. But already he was striding across the car park, heading for the car. Already he was clicking off the central locking. Already he was throwing himself onto the beaded seat cover and then… shame on him… clicking the central locking on again.
Reader, I decided to play dead. I collapsed onto the tarmac and rolled myself into a foetal comma. I was pleading with the God of football hooligans to come save me, for anyone to come save me, and with every passing moment, I was expecting the Newcastle fan’s Alan Smith boot to come cracking into my ribs.
I felt meaty paws on my shoulder, trying to roll me over. Trying to expose my unguarded belly. I screwed up
my eyes and heard the chirpy voice of one of the greasy Poles from the caff.
‘Mjister,’ he said, ‘Mjister? Are yjou, hjow yjou sjay, okay?’
I opened my eyes again, took in the big, denim-jacketed fellow, took in his big Legia Warsaw tattoos. And then I heard the rest of his mob, the Eastern European lorry drivers, launching into their victory song, and I knew I was saved. So did Gerald it seemed, for almost as soon as he saw how the Czechs and Poles had beaten the Geordies to the ground, he pulled up the Volvo next to my prone form, opened the door and yelled at me to get in.
‘Come on. We don’t want to miss the big K.O,’ he said.
END OF PART FOUR