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'He's all right. You'll live for ever, won't you, Connie?' said Marcus Felstead.
His head was being pumped up and down by an unknown hand. As he surfaced, his gaze took in an extensive area of mud stretching away to the incredibly distant posts. Then his forehead was brought down almost to his knees. Up again. Fred Slater he saw was resting his sixteen stones, something he did at every opportunity. Down. His knees. The mud. One stocking was down. His tie-up hung loose round his ankle. It was always difficult preserving a balance between support and strangulation of the veins. But it was worth it. Once the mud hardened among the long black hairs, it was the devil's own job to get it off. Up again. He resisted the next downward stroke.
'Why do you do that, anyway?' asked Marcus interestedly.
'I don't know,' said a Welsh voice. 'It's what they always do, isn't it? It seems to bloody well work.'
'You all right then, Connie?'
Connon slowly got up with assistance from the Welshman whom he now recognized as Arthur Evans, his captain.
'I think so,' he said. 'What happened?'
'It was that big bald bastard in their second row,' said Arthur. 'Never you mind. I'll fix him.'
There was a deprecating little cough from the referee who was lurking behind Connon.
'I think we must restart.'
Connon shook his head. There was a dull ache above his left ear. Marcus was rather blurred.
'I think I'd better have a few minutes off, Arthur.'
'You do that, boyo. Here, Marcus, you give him a hand while I sort this lot out. Not that it matters much when you only get twelve of the sods turning up in the first place.'
Marcus slipped Connon's arm over his shoulder.
'Come along, my boy. We'll deposit you in the bath before the rest of this filthy lot get in.'
They slowly made their way to the wooden hut which served as a pavilion.
'Get yourself in that bath and mind you don't drown,' said Marcus. 'I'll get back and avenge you. It must be nearly time anyway.'
Left to himself, Connon began to unlace his boots. The ache suddenly began to turn like a cogwheel meshing with his flesh. He bowed his head between his knees again and it faded away. He stood up, fumbled in his jacket pocket and took out a packet of cigarettes. The smoke seemed to help and he took off his other boot. But he couldn't face the bath, he decided. He wasn't very dirty and he hadn't moved fast enough to work up a sweat. He washed the mud off his hands and bathed his face. Then, after towelling himself down, he got dressed.
The others trooped in as he was fastening his tie.
'You all right, Connie?' asked Marcus again.
'Yes, thank you.'
'Good-oh!' said Marcus. 'Let's get into that water before Fred gets in.'
He began to tear his rugby kit off. Within seconds the bath was full of naked men and the water was sloshing over the side. There was a general outcry as Fred Slater settled in. Connon looked at the scene with slight distaste.
'Goodbye, Marcus,' he said, but his voice was drowned in a burst of singing. He made his way to the door and out into the fresh air.
He picked his way slowly over the muddy grass towards the distant club-house. The hut the fourth team used had originally been all the accommodation the club possessed, but the present of an adjoining field and a large loan from the Rugby Union had enabled them at the same time to develop another two pitches and build the pavilion. But even here the showers could not really cope with more than two teams, so the Fourth soldiered on in the old hut.
Connon thought ruefully that he had rather missed out on the development. The season the club-house was opened had been the season he retired. All those years in the first team had been centered on the old hut. Now when he was stupid enough to let himself be talked into playing, it was back to the old hut again.
He pushed open the glass-panelled door and stepped into the social room. Tea and sandwiches were being served.
'Hello, Connie,' called Hurst, the club captain. 'Been over at the Fourths? How did they get on?'
Connon realized he did not know. He could not even recollect the score when he had left the field.
'I don't know how it ended,' he said. 'I got a knock and came off early.'
Hurst looked at him in surprise.
'You haven't been playing, have you? Good lord. You'd better have a seat.'
Connon helped himself to a cup of tea.
'I'm only thirty-nine,' he said. 'You're nearly thirty yourself, Peter.'
Hurst smiled. He knew, and he knew that Connon knew, this was his last season as captain.
'They won't get me out there, Connie. When I finish, I finish.'
'Sandwich, Connie?' asked one of the girl helpers. Connon recognized her as the girl-friend of the second team full-back. He shook his head, remembering when Mary had used to come down on Saturday afternoon. The catering like everything else had been more primitive then. Once they became wives they stopped coming. Then they tried to stop you coming. Then they even stopped that.
'I won't do it again in a hurry,' he said to Hurst. 'How did you get on?'
But Hurst had turned away to talk to some members of the visiting team.
The ache was turning again in Connon's head and he put his cup down and went across the room to the door which led into the bar. This was empty except for the club treasurer behind the bar sorting out some bottles.
'Hello, Connie,' he said. 'You're early. You know we don't serve till tea's done and the girls have got cleared up.'
'That's all right, Sid. I just feel like a quiet sit down. It's rather noisy in there.'
He sank into a chair and massaged the side of his head. The treasurer carried on with his work a few moments, then said, 'Are you feeling all right, Connie?'
He lit another cigarette.
'Make an exception and pass me a scotch, will you, Sid?'
'Well, all right. Medicinal purposes only. Don't let those drunkards smell it.'
He poured a scotch and handed it over.
'Two shillings and sixpence.'
'Isn't my credit good?'
'Your credit's bloody marvellous. It's my accounts which are bloody awful. Two and six'.
Connon dug into his pocket and produced the money. He sat down again and sipped his whisky. It didn't help.
The door opened and Marcus stuck his head in.
'There you are, then. I saw your car outside so I knew you must be hiding somewhere. How are you feeling?'
'Not so bad.'
'Good-oh. I see you've got a drink. Hey, Sid!'
'Right, I'll have to share yours, Connie.'
He sat down beside Connon. Connon pushed the drink towards him.
'Here. Watch it or I'll take offence.'
Marcus Felstead was short, bald, and fat. His face was not really the face of a fat man, Connie thought, but of a tired saint. He could not recall the name of the tired saint he had in mind but he remembered very clearly the picture in his illustrated Bible which was the source of the idea. The saint, his sanctity advertised by a dome of light which sat round his head like a space helmet, had been leaning on a staff and looking despondently into the distance which seemed to offer nothing but desert. Perhaps the thing about Marcus's face was that the fleshiness of it formed a framework round rather than belonged to the thin nose and lips and narrow intelligent eyes which peered at him now curiously.
'Are you sure you're OK, Connie? You're not usually knocking the booze back so early.'
'Well, I did feel a bit groggy. But it's gone now. How did we get on by the way?'
'What do you think? Two men short with one of their reserves playing at full-back. Can you imagine? A reserve for a fourth team. Jesus, he made me feel young. They scored another couple after you'd gone. Thirty-two — three it was at the end.'
Connon was surprised. He could not recall any scoring at all, certainly not the kind of regular scores needed to build up a total like that.
'Who scored for us?'
Marcus looked at him strangely.
'What are you after? Flattery? You did, you silly bugger. A moment of glory, like the old times.'
Connon drank his whisky absently. He had distinct memories of the game, but they bore no relation to Marcus's account.
The door burst open and a group of youngsters came in, their faces glowing with exercise and hard towelling.
'Come along, barman, this isn't good enough, this bar should be open now!' one cried.
'It'll be open at the proper time,' said the treasurer, 'and then I'm not sure you're old enough to be served.'
'Me? The best fly-half the Club's ever had. I'd be playing for England now if I hadn't got an Irish mother, and for Ireland if I hadn't got an English father.'
'And for Wales, if you didn't fancy Arthur Evans's old woman.'
Marcus frowned disapprovingly and spoke sharply into their laughter, affecting a Welsh lilt.
'Somebody talking about me, is there?'
There was an edge of silence for a moment, but only a moment.
'It's only Marcus!'
'It might not have been,' said Marcus sharply.
Unconcerned, a couple of boys strolled over and sat down at the table. They were only eighteen or nineteen. Still at the stage where they were fit rather than kept fit, thought Connon.
'Did you play today, Marcus?'
'Great! How did you get on?'
'Pity. We won and the Firsts won.'
'Not playing for the Firsts yet, a young and fit man like you?'
The youth smiled at this attack on his own condescension. 'Not yet. But I'm ready. I'm just waiting for the selection committee to spot me.' He grinned, a little (but not very) shyly, at Connon. 'Didn't you like my line-out work today, Connie?'
The boy had never called him Connie before. In fact, he couldn't recollect the boy's ever having called him anything. This was the way with these youngsters — noncommittal or familiar, there was no earlier formal stage. Not that I mind, he admonished himself. This is a rugby club, not an office party.
'I didn't see it, I'm afraid,' he replied.
Hurst stuck his head through the hatch which led into the social room.
'Right, Sid,' he said. 'All clear.'
'Your order, gentlemen. Marcus, you're on tonight as well, aren't you?'
'Christ, so I am. I could have been legitimately behind the bar all this time. Are you staying, Connie?'
Connon shook his head.
'I'm late already. Mary's expecting me for tea.'
'She doesn't know you were playing, then?'
'How could she? I didn't know myself till Arthur grabbed me when I got here and wept Welsh tears all over me.'
'Best of luck, then. See you tomorrow.'
'Come on, Marcus!' came a cry from the bar. The room was now full and the social room hatch was also crowded with faces. Marcus barged his way through the crowd and was soon serving drinks from the other side of the counter.
Connon held the last of his whisky in his mouth. He felt reluctant to move though he knew he was already late. In fact he tried to catch Arthur Evans's eye but the little Welshman either missed him or ignored him. Connon smiled at himself, recognizing his own desire to be pressed to stay. A group of young men with their girls crowded round his table and he stood up.
'Thank you, Mr Connon,' said one of the girls as she slipped into his chair. Connon nodded vaguely at her, suspecting he recognized one of his daughter's school-friends under the mysterious net of hair which swayed over her face. She brushed it back and smiled up at him. He was right. Seventeen years old, glowing with unself-conscious beauty. She had a piece of tomato skin stuck in the crack between her two front teeth.
'You're a friend of Jenny's, aren't you?' he asked.
'That's right,' she said. 'How's she enjoying college?'
'Fine,' he answered, 'I think she's very happy there. She'll soon be home for the holidays. Perhaps we'll see you at the house. It's Sheila, isn't it?'
'That's right. It depends where I fit into Jenny's new scale of friends, I suppose. I'd quite like to see her.'
Connon reluctantly digested another piece of the revolting honesty of the young and turned to go. He heard a burst of laughter as he moved to the door. Arthur noticed him this time.
'Hey, Connie, how are you there, boyo? How's the head?'
'It's all right now.'
'Good. I settled that fellow's nonsense anyhow. Time for a drink?'
'No thanks, Arthur. Gwen coming down tonight?'
'Why yes, she is. Always does, doesn't she? Why do you ask?'
'No reason. I haven't seen her for a while, that's all.'
'That's because you're always bloody well rushing off home, isn't it? Why doesn't Mary come down nowadays?'
Connon shrugged. For a second he contemplated offering Arthur a long analysis of the complex of reasons governing his wife's absence.
'Too busy, I expect,' he said. 'I'd better be off. Cheers, Arthur.'
The car park was quite full now and his car was almost boxed in. He had once proposed at a committee meeting that the club-house facilities be restricted to those who at least watched the game but this voluntary restriction of revenue had not won much support. Finally he got clear without trouble and drove away into the early darkness of a winter evening.
He glanced at his watch and realized just how late he was. He increased his speed slightly. Ahead a traffic light glowed green. It turned to amber when he was about twenty yards away. He pressed hard down on the accelerator and crossed as the amber flicked over to red.
There was no danger. There was only one car waiting to cross and it was coming from the right.
But it was a police-car.
Connon swore to himself as the car pulled ahead of him and flashed 'Stop'. He drew carefully in to the side and switched off his engine. Its throbbing continued in his head somehow and he rubbed his temple, in an effort to dispel the pain. Out of the car ahead climbed two uniformed figures who made their way towards him slowly, weightily. He lowered his window and sucked in the fresh air.
'Good evening, sir. May I see your licence?'
Silently he drew it out and handed it over with his insurance cover-note and test certificate.
'Thank you, sir.'
The gears in his head were now grinding viciously together and he could not stop himself from rubbing his brow again.
'Are you all right, sir?'
'Yes, thank you.'
'Have you been drinking?'
'No. Well, no. I had one whisky but that's all.'
'I see. Would you mind taking a breathalyser test, sir?'
Connon shrugged. The policeman accepted the negative result impassively and returned his documents.
'Thank you, sir. You will hear from us if any further action is proposed concerning your failure to halt at the traffic lights. Good evening.'
'Good evening,' said Connon. The whole business had taken something over fifteen minutes, making him still later. But he drove the remaining five miles home with exaggerated care, partly because of the police, partly because of his headache. As he turned into his own street, his mind cleared and the pain vanished in a matter of seconds.
He drove carefully down the avenue of glowing lampposts. It was a mixed kind of street, its origins contained in its name, Boundary Drive. The solid detached houses on the left had been built for comfort in the 'thirties when they had faced over open countryside stretching away to the Dales. Now they faced a post-war council estate whose name, Woodfield Estate, was the sole reminder of what once had been. This itself merged into a new development so that the boundary was a good four miles removed from the Drive. Mary and her cronies among the neighbours often bemoaned the proximity of the estate, complaining of noise, litter, overcrowded schools, and the comparative lowness of their own house values.
This last was certainly true, but Connon suspected that most of his neighbours were like himself in that only the price-depressing nearness of the estate had enabled him to buy such a house. Even then, it had really been beyond his means. But Mary had wanted a handsome detached house with a decent garden and Boundary Drive had offered an acceptable compromise between the demands of social prestige and economy.
His gates were closed. He halted on the opposite side of the road and went across to open them. While he was at it, he walked up the drive and opened the garage doors. It was quite dark now. The only light in the house was the cold pallor from the television set which glinted through the steamed-up lounge windows.
When he went back to his car a man was standing by it with the driver's door open. Connon recognized him as the occupier of the house directly opposite his own, a man named Dave Fernie whom he also knew as a chronic grumbler at work.
'Evening, Mr Connon. You left your engine running. I was just switching it off.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Clubbable Woman"
Copyright © 1970 Estate of Reginald Hill.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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