Coming on twenty years now since he ran away. He still thought about it, not as much perhaps, but certainly often enough. He ran away from all he loved, hoping to find the same elsewhere, or the echo of it somehow.
Cork City - he’d mention it after a couple of drinks sometimes, when in that sort of mood. Remarkably similar in the little details to where he was now. Fierce pride. A certain melancholic air. Pride still through the fog.
He was a regular at the games. He would silently file into the team bus as if he belonged there, and in many ways he did, eventually at least. He had unknowingly become the team mascot, watching silently from the sideline since he had first crossed the threshold of Newcastle Central Station. His first ever game was out at Flower Lodge on the outskirts of Cork, watching his father noting the scorers every time the ball rippled the net as much as he watched the action unfold before him. He had been doing the same ever since; it didn’t matter who was playing, the process had an inherent value to him.
Scheduler turned statman, after a brief encounter with Jackie in the The Cumberland Arms on a folk music night had twisted his own arm into the fold. Much like in his position at the station, he was the invisible man who crunched the numbers and found the faults before any serious repercussions occurred, be it a late goal conceded through a free-kick or a two-hour delay on the Dunstable line.
And now his position was under threat. Not just that, the viability of the team hung in the balance after the latest missive from management. All the usual bluster - budget cuts, customer satisfaction - until the last paragraph, a matter-of-fact statement announcing that due to staff shortages, any off-site activities were suspended until further notice.
For the first time he could remember, the team was resigned to defeat. As news filtered in from a Warrington courtroom that morning and the snow across the country began to thaw, he knew he had to do something. Twenty seven years others had fought against injustice, and the station couldn’t rally to protect the team that gave so many an identity? That didn’t sit right with him - it wasn’t the Central XI he knew.
He generally kept his head down, deflected any attention from himself, played the part of the industrious employee when within earshot of his superiors. No more. Someone needed to light the fire and he had just found a packet of matches in his back pocket, slowly but surely drawing the smell of smoke to his nostrils.
The company headed paper was a nice touch, or so he thought, when he tacked up the notice outside the canteen. Pre-signed for a quick getaway - it would be obvious who was responsible but it was another matter being caught in the act. The only problem being that it would surely be taken down once word had spread, and it wouldn’t be much of a petition if there was only one signature. He needed to employ guerilla warfare tactics - and so he pulled it back down and made for the accounts office, looking for a runner.
- Rob, can I have a word?
He lingered on the other side of the door, indicating that he wanted a private word - a common occurrence given Lisa Holborn was the resident gossip, and her ears had already pricked up at the sight of the taciturn Irishman. Rob pulled himself up from his slouched position and closed the door behind him, glaring at Lisa as he did so.
- What’s up Mick? Got another dodgy expense form for me?
- Better than that Rob, have a read of this. Are you up for the fight?
Rob quickly scanned the sheet that Mick had thrust into his hand, his eyes darting back and forth across the page as if he was at Wimbledon. He let out a slow whistle as he finished, entirely failing to convey his mixture of admiration and apprehension.
- What do the lads think? Does Jackie know what you’re up to?
- Deliver it to him and find out - sign it first though! Good man.
He gave him a quick pat on the shoulder as he left, confident now that the Central Station XI would be taking to the field the following Wednesday.
The canteen was buzzing with anticipation the following day. Jackie had quickly mobilised the troops and had added his own splash of panache to proceedings. The general manager and his cohort were quick to notice the atmosphere and were self-congratulatory on how well the memo had been received. Mick was also unaware of any surprises in store. He had lit the fire and considered it out of his hands from that point on.
There was a flurry of nudged elbows and hushes as Dora carried the tray to the manager. Mick looked up from his book and noticed the petition - Jackie caught his eye and winked conspiratorially. There was silence as the tray was gently placed on the table, and Dora glared fearlessly at the bewildered features of the bloated manager.
- Justice is served, ladies and gentlemen. Food for thought today - bon appetit!
As the canteen erupted in cheers and hollers, Jackie sidled up to Mick and grabbed his arm.
- Did I tell you we’re thinking of adopting a chant for the team Mick? You’ll Never Walk Alone was as unanimous a choice as that petition of yours.
A fitting tribute to the spirit of those that had fought longer and harder for something much more important.