Sport - Benjamin Markovits

Overheard on a bus, two boys show how football talk can also be a touching proof of friendship

On the number 16 bus, two boys talking. A fat boy and a skinny boy. First, the fat one.

- I'm no smoker. Don't put that on me.

- I didn't. I mean . . .

The pallor of youth; spotty, unshaved faces. The confidence, too, to turn their private friendship into something public. The boast of intimacy.

- I might have a drag now and then. You know, to wake up. But I got to keep fit.

- I know. Gives you that edge.

- I'm brilliant at football. Really good.

- I'm pretty good.

The fat boy, having claimed the advantage, builds on it.

- I got all the angles, me. Off the crossbar. Against the post.

- The angles are tough.

- With my foot, my knee, my head. I don't care.

- I know. Whatever it takes.

The bus waits under the tangle of the Westway. People get in, squeeze past.

It's Sunday-night crowded: the last turn home before the week begins. The boys stop talking. School in the morning. Emerging, again, into the brightness of the shops, the garages and grocers, the skinny boy pokes the fat one.

- You watch the match today?

- What match?

It was only a nudge, to keep things going. Which seems to be his job.

- You know, the match.

- Nah. I'm not a watcher. I'm a player.

After a pause, the fat boy adds:

- Who won?

Not to be outdone:

- Don't know. Me neither.

- Course not. Who's got time? Rather be playing.

- That's right. Whatever the wevver.

The fat boy laughs. The skinny boy, encouraged:

- I mean, it's all about money with them. And girls.

- Yeah, money and girls.

- With us . . .

- With you and me . . .

- . . . it's love of the game.

- That's right. Love of the game. I mean, the more I play, the stronger I get. I've only just started really. And look.

The fat boy holds up his thumb and flexes it.

The skinny boy laughs.

Then, in the silence, reconsiders. The bus passes the grandeur of the canal, into the larger gloom. Changing tone:

- You say that, but whenever we play, it's like one-one.

- What do you mean?

- It's really, you know, hard-fought.

The fat boy stops to think:

- I'm getting better. (Another pause.) I'm going easy.

- I bet you, when we play, it's one-one. It's like . . .

- Nah. Like I said, I got all the angles.

- Cats and dogs.

- Off the crossbar. Against the post.

- I'm telling you. One-one.

- I'm going easy.

- Is it?

- Yeah.

- Easy?

Then, more respectfully, admitting the joke both ways, the fat boy says, - That's right.

The bus pulls up outside a tower block. Long stretch of road with nothing but tower blocks and bus stops. The fat boy, in a Puffa coat, slopes off. He has a Puffa body: filled out, lightly; comfortable; outsized. The skinny boy calls out:

- Call me tomorra, innit?

His clothes are too big for him, hang off his bones. He calls out again:

- Your place or mine?

- Yeah - as the door shuts. The fat boy slaps the glass with a flat palm. As the bus pulls out, he holds up an imaginary Game Boy. Thumbs the air furiously, then turns away. His trouser hems catch at the heel of his shoes.

The skinny boy smiles, even when the fat boy's gone, a public smile going private. His stop is next. The bus has to wait for him a minute; he hobbles off, one step at a time, on a club-foot.

Hunter Davies is away

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