Sunday, 22 April 2012

Chernobyl


That year I first went to football, 1986, actually turned out to be a good one for West Ham.  So much for Long John crying about the lost past, forgotten glory days. It was West Ham’s best ever season in the league. I know this. I appreciate the irony in it all. For that year, on West Ham’s last home league game of the season – versus Ipswich, who else – Long John went to the game alone. He could have taken me. I mean, there I was, home from school, having heard the buzz all day. About how West Ham were close to being champions. I really did think that Long John would walk in the door, grinning, tell me to grab my coat and then we’d be off, in his van. But that never happened. He never came home. He went to the game straight from work. Or maybe he hadn’t gone into work at all that day. The date of the game – April 30th 1986 – was a famous day. You should know that. It was the day of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia. A nuclear meltdown that sat next to my monumental let-down. I watched the teatime news highlighting the concerns that experts supposedly had about how the gentleness of wind could carry radioactivity in its arms all the way to England and then drop a death plague on our doorstep. The end of the world loomed as me and Mum ate a jacket potato topped with coleslaw and grated cheese. Mum was worried and left over half of hers. I had my concerns too. About the future, about tomorrow at school, about what exactly was I going to say to everyone now? You see, I was that certain that I would be going to the game that I had over-talked, badly. I had made myself the centre of attention, citing titbits of match-stats as a result of having my head buried in books about West Ham that belonged to Long John. Books that I had been reading manically when I realised that there was surely a strong possibility that I was about to be going to my second game of football.
          “Did you know, that John Lyall is only our fifth manager since Thames Ironworks became West Ham United FC in 1900? Chelsea have had as many managers in the last five years.”
          “You ever actually been to West Ham, Silver?” Michael Taylor’s much older brother had said, while gate-crashing my informative playground lecture. I could have crumbled, but I had the wind of truth lifting my wings.
          “Yes I have. Wednesday’ll be the second time I’ve been to West Ham versus Ipswich this year. I went when we played them at home. In the cup it was. Did you go to that game?”
          No one else in my year at school, in our small crowd of tiny infants, had been to a game before let alone the cup game versus Ipswich. By his lack of response, neither had Michael Taylor’s older brother been to the one game I had. This promoted me to new heights and I felt mighty in being able to brag about going to the biggest league match in West Ham’s history. For I stupidly believed that the bond between me and Long John would be set ablaze, a fire of love between son and father blazing at long last, with him so impressed on route to the game with my recently indulged appreciation of some of the history of West Ham United. And there we would be. My first game against Ipswich to be superseded by this. A game that if won, would place The League Title within sight of Alvin Martin’s hands. I had definitely over-talked about how I was going to the game. But that never happened and I didn’t know what I was now going to tell everyone at school. It was no good just turning up at the school gates in a claret and blue scarf, bring along a few of Long John’s programmes that go all the way back to when his dad used to go to football at West Ham after the war. I had done all that already. Many times. No, they would want to talk to me about the game. I would soon get found out. The disappointment in not going meant that there was no way that my small brain was going to be able to inspire a lairs performance. I was gutted that I hadn’t gone. It would be written all over my face. I would be forever shunned, a bullshitter. All I had to recount was what had been on the telly. Chernobyl.
          Long John came home in the early hours. I heard an argument start, both voices at war. Then silence. In the morning, I looked for a programme to take to school but he hadn’t left one out. West Ham had won the game and had gone second in the league and you’d have thought that Long John would have been ecstatic. But when I spoke to him, when he got in from work the following night, he was anything but happy that West Ham were right behind Liverpool with one weekend remaining and a game in hand; as extraordinary as it sounds, they really did have every chance of winning the league. But instead of celebrating the win, when I asked him about the game he narrowed his face and said how the winning goal scored from a penalty should never have been a penalty and how he was saddened that as a result, Ipswich would be relegated. It was all very strange at the time. But I never put two and two together. Unlike now. How he not only betrayed Mum and his family, but his club too, one that was also supposed to be for life.
          I guess when looking at the facts of circumstance, fate all boiled down to Tony Cottee and the toss of a coin. Back in January he scored the extra time equaliser in the 106th minute that took the tie to a second replay and then the venue for that second replay – once again, Portman Road, Ipswich – was determined by a toss of a coin. It was pure chance I guess that Long John met our now long established pantomime villain on that first replay. Maybe he bought her a Bovril. Maybe he couldn’t get in the West Ham end and went in her end; quite literally. Bumped into her in the cold, two shuddering bodies and bought her a Bovril. That’s what I have always pictured. If the second replay was at West Ham and not back at Ipswich, I swear Long John would never have made that final move to leave Mum. I just don’t think he would have made the effort. Not his style. He simply wouldn’t have bothered. Mum would still be alive and Long John might even have mellowed in age enough for me to call him Dad. Yes, it was the second reply that did the damage, which ultimately mapped out the road for him to go back to Ipswich again to join hands with that blonde witch, the fatal road that ultimately led to Mum dying. We’ll never know for sure the full details, but I reckon that everything changed for the worse on a cold snowbound Tuesday night in Ipswich back in February 1986, when Tony Cottee scored a late equalising goal and then the toss of that bastard coin determined Long John was back to Ipswich for more of the same.


Extract from the novel, Barking Frog by Joe England

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