Deep in enemy territory.

My secondary education occurred in what was quite frankly a terrible school. There was no lovable Mr. Chips teacher in it, rather with only a few honourable exceptions, mostly a collection of lazy and disillusioned teachers who’d long ago given up and were essentially ticking off the days to retirement. They languidly handed out after school detention sentences like sweeties, and since only complete idiots ever bothered to turn up for detention, and anyway they didn’t like the unpaid extra hours aspect of the whole business, nobody ever appeared, so everyone was happy.

I’d always liked history and read it voraciously, anything I could get my hands on. The complete history slag. Our nominal curriculum was the Tudors and Stuarts, which a lazy history teacher never really covered, so how anybody was ever supposed to pass an exam on them, Christ only knows. One read of one book on that era, I had it down. I was already well ahead, slaking my thirst reading about Garibaldi, Frederick the Great, Czarina Catherine, Otto von Bismarck and getting well into modern history.

Staying under the radar as much as possible was my specialty in those days, but when the intermediate history exam were taken, I basically strolled it. Got an “A” and my history “teacher” puffed up with pride at what a fine job he’d done with me. The true power of self-delusion is a terrible thing to behold. Suddenly, they’d a bloody star on their hands. By some mechanism which I wasn’t party to nor even asked about, I was inexplicably put in to study for a British constitutional history exam, which is basically called civics in this more modern era.

The bijou problemette with that was there was no incumbent teacher inmate who knew anything about it, never mind teach it, so I was handed off on a one day a week basis to the school across the road who did such snooty classes rather than the cookery, bricklaying and carpentry classes us lot of morons were being programmed for to be housemaids or factory fodder.

Our school was RC, Roman Catholic, otherwise known as the Rock Cakes, and the school over the road was some flavour of Protestant, otherwise known as the Prods or Proddies. The only interaction we had apart from after school fights, was a twice a year soccer match. If you got picked for a match against the Prods, it was all in. No quarter asked, none given and if you came off that field without a bruise or a bleed, you were a wuss who’d let the side down.

I always got picked, more for my determination than any innate talent I think, and played either full back defense or emergency centre forward killer. I preferred playing back because I was always double teamed with a good friend and by some innate means of communication, we always knew where each other were without looking. Not many attacks got by us.

Our star player was a pretty boy with some ridiculous buffoon hairdo that had all the girls swooning and looked the glam Georgie Best part, but the reality was that as soon as the opposition realised he was offended when they had the temerity to shoulder barge him, they went in hard. Believe it or not, soccer is a contact sport. Pretty soon, he’d limp off the field to be soothed by his adoring coterie of female admirers and I’d suddenly get promoted to centre forward. I hated it. Abandoning my best mate in the defense. It’s a team game, so you have to go with the coach’s decisions, even if they’re a prick.

The coach hated me, but as soon as buffoon boy disappeared from the pitch, I got put up forward, because he knew I was the last best hope of winning the damn thing.

After buffoon boy left the pitch and I’d curved the winner into the back of the net in our last match, I knew I was going to get a really warm welcome from the Prods. Really warm, and I wasn’t disappointed. Lunch break in the playground that one day a week became exciting events for me, gladiator school, and in the end, I think words were exchanged between the ecumenical elements of both schools to the effect that if this experiment always results in us getting a battered child back one day week, let’s forget about it.

As if by magic, it all backed off and I was left alone in the playground. When I say alone, I mean alone. Nobody would come near me, nobody would talk to me, nobody wanted to be my friend. When you’re a teen, that’s a tough row to hoe. In that simple, roughty toughty way adolescents have, I coped with it, perhaps not too suavely. I’d bring a football with me on those days and because there was a flank wall on one of the buildings without windows, I’d spend lunchtimes hammering it against the wall and trying to volley it on the rebound before it hit the ground.

I was busy killing the football as usual when I realised I was being watched for a change. Wonder of wonders, I wasn’t the invisible kid in the playground for once. It was the alpha male, a lot bigger than me, blonde, blue-eyed, leader of the playground pack. We’d had numerous run ins to the point where one of his flunkies had whispered in my ear when I was down on the ground, “Just stay down”. Of course I couldn’t, it was about personal honour. I’d rather fucking die.

What’re you doing?

In one of those rare flashes of insight you have, I realised the query was genuine and he knew being the biggest kid in his year being pushed forward by his classmates to do nothing more than brutality was a transitory thing. He wanted a lot better than that, desired it, to open a line of communication with the one person he knew who wasn’t an uncritical admirer of his size and strength and bulk.

There are moments in life when you know precisely what the careful move is, but also ones where you look at someone and think, I’m going to take a chance on you. I looked at him, the ideal Nazi stormtrooper and took the chance. Do you see that yellow brick in the middle of that wall about ten feet up?


I placed the football at my feet and after a small runup, hit it exactly and caught it on the rebound. I then did it with left swerve followed by right swerve and then top and bottom spin. Possibly the best five consecutive shots I’d every done in my life, but the ball hit the yellow brick every time.

That’s how I put that ball around your keeper and into the back of the net at our last game. It wasn’t a fluke.

He looked at me and moved with his next words in my estimation from just being a big bully thug to being a decent man by simply saying – Show me how you do that.

I did and that end of the lunchtime playground became ours. Exclusively ours. We hammered the hell out of that yellow brick until the sweat ran off both of us in rivulets. He was a lot bigger than me and learnt to put some real curve on a ball I’d never have been able to, and of course at the next inter-tribal soccer game, I came to regret teaching him how to curve a ball through the air. He made the absolute perfect winning curve into the upper left hand side of the goal using his left foot, which I’d nagged him into practicing, since he was right foot dominant. The ball doesn’t always come to you on your good foot, and you’ve only got an instant to make the strike.

He ran back by me and mussed my hair and I hit him a good whack on the bum in passing, but that’s sports. Enemies can become firm friends. It was, after all, a beautiful shot.

From there abouts, we palled around together despite the sectarian boundaries and all of my compadres knew if they wanted to get to him, it’d only be through me, and I knew the reverse was true. From then on, life got a lot easier for me in my foreign adventures at that school. Some life-long friendships are forged in some unlikely fires.

I always admired his strength of character as being the established top dog, and yet still having the courage to cast an olive branch he didn’t need to do, to the orphan he’d previously fought in the playground.

Such men are rare.


Related articles.

About Henry.

A visit to Cardiff.




2 Responses to “Deep in enemy territory.”
  1. Truthseeker says:

    Your blond friend’s name wasn’t David Beckham by any chance?


  2. John W. Garrett says:

    Thanks— cool story. Every now and then, life can be pleasantly surprising.


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