Be the Best

Be the Best

Be the Best 1920 1280 Jon Doyle

We’d never played Ely before, but we’d heard about them. The league expanded east at youth level, and when we told our old men we’d be playing Cardiff teams they laughed and winced and made faces.“They don’t fuck about up there boys,” they said. “They’re rough as fuck.” We tried to imagine. We put it out of our minds. We beat Porthcawl and Port Talbot and Kenfig Hill and went within one win of having the best start our side had ever managed. But then we had to go to Ely. Ely boys carried knives, is what we’d heard. It didn’t surprise us. Nothing surprised us.

*

“Is everyone on?” Coach wanted to know, though he started the engine and pulled away regardless. Coach’s voice was always croaky, and the theory was that he lived alone and didn’t speak to anyone else during the week. Like, no one at all, not even a dog. It might have been true. He spent most of his free time with us. Surely that hadn’t been his first choice in life?

The bus had a CD player and the boys had CDs—mixes of radio rock and techno that they’d ripped from Limewire and burned onto whatever discs they could find. Sometimes the track wasn’t what they expected, an acoustic or cover version or some shitty live take recorded on a Dictaphone. Sometimes it was clearly taped from the radio, full of emergency sirens and barking dogs, some creepy cunt breathing behind the beat.

“My brother’s got a secret site,” Wormy shouted over the music. “Can get anything you want. Music, games, porn.”

“What about Civilisation then?” Titch asked. “I asked for that like three weeks ago.”

“You never said which one,” Wormy yelled back.“I told you that. There’s CivilisationI, CivilisationII, CivilisationIII. My brother can get them all.”

The song playing sounding like a jackhammer on fast forward.

“Oi, we picking Alex up today?” Alien wanted to know.

Alien got his nickname on account of the shape of his head, but no-one gave him shit about it anymore.

“Yes,” Coach said.

“Well we just drove past him.”

Coach swore and looked for somewhere to turn. I felt bad for Coach, but never knew how to show it. He did a U-turn in the middle of the road and then another like a hundred yards later, then indicated dutifully to pull into Alex’s pick-up spot like Mr Green Cross Code.

The minibus door was fucker to open and we could never do it. It pissed Coach off no end because it meant he had to get out and do open it for us. He could do it easy. There was a knack to it, I s’pose.

Three of us were tugging inside and Alex was tugging outside and Coach, perhaps deciding this was one time too many, shouted instructions over the music. When the door finally opened, we were none the wiser as to how.

“Alright?” “Alright?” “Alright?” said the boys as Alex climbed aboard. “Alright?” he said back.

Alex worked night shifts every Friday and Saturday at a building supplies warehouse down by the docks, moving sacks of sand and cement and arm loads of two-by-fours from one pile to another and sometimes back again. He got off at seven and got his colleague to drop him by the junction, boots and shin pads in a Happy Shopper plastic bag. The job was his father’s idea, to give him a taste of the Real World. He seemed to have accepted his fate. He scared us all half to death.

The CD skipped aggressively. It was impossible to tell if it was a malfunction or part of the song. It sounded like how I imagined a stroke felt.

“Ready to get stabbed, son?” Woody shouted.

Slinging his bag into the aisle and taking the seat across from me, Alex didn’t look much bothered either way.

*

That week in school, the Army had come in. Trying to get us to Be The Best. They brought a couple of dickheads in combat fatigues and a climbing wall and had us doing army stuff all morning. Marching and trying on the helmets and that. They even had a gun, a big black SA80-something, but we didn’t reckon it was real.

In the afternoon we went into the assembly hall and listened to talks by various army people. The chef, the engineer, the dentist. The middle-aged officer who spoke about the glory of the Royal Welsh and fielded questions about slug sizes and headshots. They projected a slideshow on the wall full of promotional images. Soldiers in swamps, soldiers in ghillie suits, soldiers in formation like a well-oiled machine. The young men in the pictures either looked like they wanted to be your mate or kill you, and those operating the biggest guns looked back out of frame as though to check their bosses, or maybe their fathers, were watching.

At the end of the day they set up a table by the door with a sign-up sheet. They called it a Declaration of Interest form. You had to pass them to get out the door, and in the queue we joked about terrorists and the Taliban. When I got closer my heart started hammering and I felt sick as hell even though I knew I could walk right past. I was going to be the first Sullivan to go to university, so went my mother’s narrative. I didn’t need the Army.

I put my name down anyway, and it was weird. Nothing changed. I went to the vending machine and grabbed a Coke and Kit Kat, and walked out of the school gates with the rest of the boys.

*

The CD had staggered on to some arena band and Boycey was arguing with Ashley about who was better—these or Slipknot. Ash loved Slipknot and all that. Boycey said they were for autistics and school shooters.

“There’s being awake, right?” Alex was telling Alien.“And there’s sleeping. But I’ve found another state. Like, a combination of the two.”

“Like a Venn diagram?” Josh Davies asked.

“The fuck’s a Venn diagram?”Josh Phillips wanted to know.

“The circles innit,” Davies said.

“Sort of yeah,” Alex told Alien.

There were too many on the bus now. Having picked up Dean Perry and the Dale twins there was like seventeen of us, and the sign above the door said MAXIMUM CAPACITY: 15. Add in all our shit and the bag of balls and it was pretty fucking cosy. The twins sat two to a seat. Perry laid down in the aisle.

Poor fucking Perry was always having to do shit like that. Someone told me he slept top-and-tail with his brother because they didn’t have enough bedrooms. We’d gone to his house once to get him, and Coach made me and Woody get out and knock. His mother asked us in and it turned out his entire living room was full of cages. Budgies, hamsters, gerbils, he had them all. Guinea pigs, rats, a parrot that said I don’t believe it like that old fella from TV. It didn’t smell great in there. Not like shit or anything, but not great. Mrs Perry was still in her dressing gown and looked mighty pissed off at something, but she was kind enough to us.

There was another sign on the bus that said ALWAYS Wear a Seatbelt with this diagram of a guy buckling up. The man in the picture had no head and hands like a Simpson. No-one listened to him.

Some of the boys liked to goad the other drivers on the road, giving them the finger and the Vs and the wanker sign, mooning from the backseats. It was like nothing they did on that bus would have any consequence. I didn’t get involved, partly because I was afraid of getting in trouble and partly because I felt sorry for Coach. In truth it made no difference. I was on the bus, therefore I was involved.

Josh Davies and one of the Dale twins had picked out a victim. A middle-aged man in a Mondeo. Chubby, balding, glasses—a real three card trick. Davies blew kisses as Dale A or B pinched his thumb and pointer to make glasses of his own. The man tried to ignore them at first but was drawn into flashing a V. From then on the mark was hooked.

“My brother’s mate said that no-one sleeps in Ely,” Wormy told us, oblivious to the man.“He said they just walk around all night.”

I imagined a place of peeling paint and pellet guns. Sofas in the yard.

“Nah,” Josh Davies said. “You gotta sleep mun.”

“You die if you don’t sleep for like four days,” Woody said.

“He’s a copper, my brother’s mate,” Wormy continued. “He said he stopped a car in Glynneath once and found a bow and arrow.”

“Hang on Worm, how’s your brother running a pirating business if he’s friends with policemen?”

“Policeman,” Wormy corrected. “And Darren’s sound as fuck.”

Dale was doing the cock-in-your-mouth gesture. Davies licked his lips. Mondeo Man was going ape.

“I heard they do so many drugs in Ely that the fish in the river started talking.”

“How’d the drugs get in the river?”

“Flushing them down the toilet, innit?” Woody explained. “In your piss and that.”

“Sewage doesn’t go in the river.”

“He just told you the fish started talking and you’re arguing about shit in the river?”

Mondeo Man started sounding his horn, swerving in and out of traffic. If coach noticed he didn’t say anything. Davies and Dale were pissing themselves laughing.

“Sully, does sewage go in the river?”Phillips shouted.

“I don’t know,” I said, watching the lips of Mondeo Man curse us.“Ask Coach.”

“Coach,” Phillips called. “Coach?”

Mondeo Man’s face was like an unripe strawberry. Like a popped balloon.

“Anyone know where the fuck we are?” Alien asked, boxing the seat in front of him and causing Alex’s head to loll.

“We passed a sign that welcomed us to Rhondda Cynon Taff about ten minutes ago,” I said. “Wherever that is?”

“Fuck,”Alien said. “I think that’s pretty close.”

Alien put his name down for the army too, the only difference being he would actually end up in Afghanistan. I don’t know where or when exactly, but I do know he met Ross Kemp out there. He posted a picture on Facebook.

“What’s the big deal about Ely?” Alex asked, eyes closed against Alien’s pummelling.

“They’re nuts,” Alien said. “Mad bastards.”

“What do you reckon they think about us?” Alex asked, opening his eyes and turning around. “Why do you think Porthcawl call us the mountain men? The banjo pluckers?”

“Because they’re posh cunts?” Alien tried.

The other thing Alien put on Facebook was a suicide note. He said stuff about being sorry, not being able to go on etc. He said it was all shit. He said Afghanistan was shit and the ragheads were shit and George Bush was shit too, and that he’d seen his friends die out there before he saw a single fucking Talibani. That’s what he wrote. Talibani. I don’t know if it was a typo or an Army thing or what.

The post was deleted but the page is still up. Every year it tells me to wish him a happy birthday.

*

The only thing I got from putting my name on the form was a load of catalogues through the post. I flicked through them and tried to imagine what wars they were fighting in the photographs. Past wars and future wars. Wars as imagined in boardroom brainstorms. I wondered what type of war I’d most like to fight in. What type of war I’d like to avoid.

The army spots potential. One booklet told me. Even if others don’t.

*

Mondeo Man had been following for like quarter of an hour now, weaving between lanes and leaning on his horn. His anger surpassed the moment, transcended it, as though Davies and Dale hadn’t caused the rage but merely let it free. He screamed and swore with spittle flying from his mouth. He beat the steering wheel with his hands.

Still oblivious, a few boys got to discussing why we called Wormy Wormy. We had no idea. Boycey said he ate a worm in nursery, just picked it straight up out of the grass.But Wormy’s a soft twat and always has been.

“We call Wormy Wormy because of his tiny little worm dick,” Woody said.

“When were you looking at my dick?”

“Saw it in the Guinness World Records.”

“I thought we called Wormy Wormy because if you cut him in half, two grow back.”

“You’re thinking of the Dale twins.”

“It’s like a game of Where’s Wally in Wormy’s pants,” Woody said. “You need a fucking magnifying glass.”

Perhaps there’s a point of no return in anger. Once you commit, you are in, and never getting out again. Once you’re that angry, you’ll be angry all your life.

Mondeo Man was that angry. His brow was wet. His face red. His eyes popping out of his head as his driving grew increasingly erratic.

We were all watching now, saying nothing beyond oh shit, oh shit. He sped up the outside lane, eyeing us in the windows and waving his fists. He pulled out across the front of the bus and fell back on the inside lane, this time gesturing to the boys in the windows on the left.

Maybe it’s a matter of pride. A matter of logistics. There’s simply no path back to normality when fury is unleashed. The genie cannot go back in the bottle.

The music had stopped, the only sound that of our breathing and the great rush of the road. The laughing had stopped too. I eyed Davies, his pale face, his fidgeting hands. He wanted to do something else, I realised. Humiliate the man even more.

“Don’t now,” I found myself saying. “Leave him.”

Mondeo Man had fallen in behind us, right up our arse, and Davies got out of his seat. He stepped over the balls and boot bags, over Perry on the floor, and pressed his face to the back window.

“Oi, leave it,” Woody warned. “Fucking sit down.”

I saw Coach’s eyes in the rear-view but didn’t listen to his shouts.

Davies stared at the man and the man stared back. Each refused to blink. Alien got out of his seat to try and grab Davies but before he could reach him Davies tilted back his head. Holding up a hand, he slowly drew a finger to his neck and dragged it across his throat.

As he did this, he hissed.

We looked at the man for a reaction and was surprised to see him falling back. What couldn’t have been a metre between our bumpers was now five, then ten, his face shrinking into a blur.

Raising an arm aloft like a victorious boxer, Davies turned to face his audience just as the Mondeo came hurtling back into focus. It seemed bigger than before, filling the back window. For the strangest moment we sat in the pocket of time between being hit and feeling it, then Davies and Alien were flying over our heads.

*

Another thing Alien posted on Facebook was this video of an Afghan man, his head wrapped in black. The man was surrounded by other men, facing a camera, bellowing at the top of his lungs in Arabic. The clip was set to music, a swelling electronic track populated by ghostly whispers. A hand holding a BBC News microphone jutted into the bottom of the frame.

“We say to the Britishers it is not the Taliban who are fighting you,” the man said, his words furious and subtitled. “If you don’t know this, take a look at your history.” The other men fiddled with the cloth on their faces, nodded their heads, shifted their weight from foot to foot. “It is the Afghan land which is fighting against you.”

Soon the men were cheering, stamping their feet, raising their arms in triumph. “See all these men?” the man continued. “They are Taliban. But they haven’t come from abroad. They are Mujahideen who will take the Britishers out of our country.”

The camera zoomed in and panned across the men. Across their Russian rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, their shemaghs white and black and pale blue. Eyes nervous and mean, united by circumstance and the words of their spokesman. He didn’t miss a beat, snatching breaths somewhere in the unerring cadence of address. Arabic was a beautiful language, a harsh language, a language of the tongue and throat.

“And if all the Afghans die,” the man said, “the soil of Afghanistan will haunt you and destroy all of you.”

*

By the time we picked ourselves up, the Mondeo Man had gone. Coach was shouting questions and we were shouting answers. I’m not sure who was the first to laugh but it was shaky and spontaneous. Coach didn’t even pull over.

Soon we were all laughing, all yelling, joyous in the aftermath. We spoke about anything and everything, us boys. We challenged the world.

Amid the jubilation, I tried to see where we were. The Ely estate must have been close by then. But the windows of the bus had steamed up, inside and out, with all the absolute shit we were talking.

Header photography © S. Schirl Smith.

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