Mark’s stomach rumbled in tandem with the engine carriage as the train passed the castle to its right and eased into the home strait. It had been a decent start to the day, but his mind was elsewhere. Normally the reward for a morning of punctual trains was a decent slap-up in the canteen, although even if Mark was adjusting to his New Year’s Resolution then his appetite still had some catching up to do.
The tone of the churning and gurgling of his gut seemed to grow more aggressive as his thoughts drifted to the unappealing prospect of unpacking a damp salad from his satchel while all around him the others would be tucking into toad-in-the-hole or pies with mushy peas. Not for the first time in the last three weeks, his resolve was being put to the sword.
He sighed as he disembarked from the cab, barely looking up to see how his passengers had fared as they filtered out of the carriage doors behind him, too busy as he was diverting his eyes from the banks of vending machines which lined the walls of the station like a guard of honour at a funeral.
Dead man walking.
Not in so many words thankfully, but there had been a scare. Family doctor, just before Christmas, pointedly referencing his father’s poor quality of life and death when Mark was stepping onto the scales. After the initial stubbornness had worn off (still the ultimate defence mechanism), he came to realise that he was on the same track, remembering his old man joking about the black and white stripes making him look thinner. Later, seeing him struggle out of his seat, or strapped and wired to drips and computers.
- Fish’n’chips Mark! Dora’s done us a right treat today she has!
He had kept quiet about it so far, claiming indigestion when the biscuits were passed round, or insisting he’d had a big breakfast.
Liz had noticed. Straight off the bat. Gave his arm a squeeze and whispered a promise to help, the engagement ring tripping the light fantastic since Christmas morning on her finger. That was enough. Surely, that was enough.
Stubbs was doing his Martin-Luther-King-thing at the top of the canteen, Jackie just over his shoulder and occasionally nodding sagely. The longest-serving driver and the oldest engineer, de facto management team of the Central Station XI. They were Clough and Taylor, Morecambe and Wise, Butch and Sundance all at once.
- Five-a-side trials start next Tuesday and Thursday, names and playing history on the sign-in sheet. Howay the lads!
There were good-humoured cheers as they took their places, Dora hand-delivering their meals while the directors stood waiting to be served.
And Mark thinks to himself, there’s the carrot.
Thursday night and he is struggling to lace up his boots in the changing room. Three years since he’d worn them, dug out from under the stairs still caked in mud. The studs make him slightly unstable with the unfamiliar sensation, a new-born foal on Astroturf. He is thrown a bib and surveys the rest of his team.
Aside from Barry in goals, he only recognises Rob from accounts - still wearing his glasses.
- Only making up the numbers Mark! They’ve made me an assistant!
He gestures towards Stubbs and Jackie; watching from behind the wall like floating spectres. In front of them, the other two bibbed players were attempting a game of keep-up. One lad in an Iron Maiden shirt, his hair kept getting in the way, and a kid of about sixteen.
- Line-up for the bibs! Barry in nets, Rob is centre-back, Mark holding midfielder, Tommy box-to-box and Def-fucking- Leppard up front. Aim for the ponytail boys.
He attempts a couple of gentle stretches before Stubbs blows the whistle, and Mark positions himself deep in his own half as the opposition advance patiently with the ball. They probe from side to side for an opening, Mark dropping deeper and deeper. Eventually they take advantage, a rolled through ball into the space where Mark should have been.
The hesitation was slight, but it was all the invitation the winger needed. He shimmies past Mark’s trailing leg with ease before rounding Rob and coolly sidestepping the ball into the net from close range. Maybe it was imagined, but looking down at the 3G surface he could almost feel the glares from his team-mates directed at the back of his head.
Head up Mark, we’ve only started!
He turns to see Barry clapping encouragingly, geeing him up for the rest of the match. Then the gentle slap on his back from the heavy-metaller running forward to take the kick-off.
- Next one mate, just pump it up my way and we’re golden.
The ball is gently rolled back to him from the centre circle. He looks up to see the opposition forward, an Eastern European with a skinhead and tattooed arms, bear down on him in double-speed. He pulls the ball from beneath his feet and swivels around to avoid the oncoming tackle, gratefully feeling its weight still on his instep as the bustling striker slides across where he had just stood.
Mark allows himself a brief sigh of relief, before promptly aimed for the ponytail – that being the plan - who expertly cushions the ball down for the kid to make a run onto. And from 25 yards out, he absolutely wellies it on the half-volley into the onion bag!
Game on, and Mark is already sweating. Jackie is calling him from the side of the pitch so he jogs over, trying to keep his breathing in check.
- See that kid Mark? On trial at the club son, he’s one of the dinner-ladies nephews. Let him do the running, eh?
The kid is bouncing on his feet like a Duracell bunny. Mark is panting, like fucking Bugs Bunny and his fucking salad and his fucking carrot.
- Jackie, I just want to get a bit fit you know? I know I’m not up for being on this team. You remember my old man don’t you? I just don’t want that happening me too.
Jackie looks him sternly in the eye, not even blinking.
- Aye, and I remember him telling me you had trials back in the day too. We’ll find a place for you son. Keep working on that fitness and you’ll be useful yet.
The next day and there’s a new sign in the canteen. Healthy Option Available.