It was heart-warming to greet everyone outside the crematorium before the service, but to say we were a close family was a stretch. My father’s remaining relatives only communicated by annual greeting card or whenever there was a wedding or funeral. It was so long since I’d seen most of them; I struggled to recognise their faces, let alone remember their names. I’m embarrassed to confess, but I resorted to strategically mumbling my appreciation when they offered their condolences. As they clutched my hand and promised me their undying support, I wondered if my father’s departure had reminded them of their own impending mortality. In this respect, it must have been a comfort for them to encounter a young relative to call upon for assistance, should the need arise. I was fine with that notion. After all, nobody wants to be left alone to hold the broom and lock the door. Glancing behind as I took my seat at the front of the chapel, I discovered these dear souls occupied a mere two pews, despite gathering here from around the country.
The whispering congregation assumed a reverential hush as soon as the vicar cleared his throat and began his tribute to my father’s life. I smiled when he described him as a loving husband and dedicated parent who worked hard to provide for his nearest and dearest. Subsequently, the eulogy neglected to mention anything else about immediate family, skipped through my father’s teaching career, concentrating on his lifelong passion for soccer and staunch support for the Bury Football Club. Mister Treadwell concluded his testimonial by saying my father was clearly a decent fellow and keen sports enthusiast, and he regretted not meeting him in person prior to his cremation. It’s a funny thing to admit, but at that moment I wondered if I knew my father any better than Mister Treadwell. My father preferred to remain silent during family meals and ignored any attempt at meaningful conversation unless it concerned “the beautiful game.”
I’d given up trying to initiate a dialogue, only to have it extinguished with a monosyllabic response. There were entire weeks of my childhood that passed in awkward silence; it was as if someone had died. Maybe he was preparing us all in advance for his sad demise; God only knows what he was thinking.
Dad was from a distant era that observed a simple set of rules; wives were housekeepers and husbands went to work. It was an immutable contract that made little provision for his involvement in family life and child-rearing. During most weeks, my father returned from his job, expected to eat at precisely five-thirty and then withdrew behind his newspaper for the evening. There was nothing in the arrangement that said he should take an interest in his progeny’s homework, leisure pursuits, or engage in light banter. As far as he was concerned, he’d fulfilled his side of the deal by going down the aisle with my mother. Weekends at home followed their own particular pattern, especially during the soccer season. My father spent every Saturday afternoon either at the local football stadium or glued to the television set, watching “Grandstand’s” live match coverage with its blow-by-blow commentary.
I was unlucky enough to be a girl and therefore he didn’t expect me to take an interest in soccer. When I was a youngster, ladies’ football wasn’t the norm, and a professional career in the sport was unimaginable. The highlight of his Saturday evenings was “Match of the Day”, which was an all-male affair and there was no coverage of women’s football matches.
My mother tried to understand his love for soccer and I remember her sitting beside him on the sofa during a couple of televised matches, however he frowned whenever she got too excited; kicking her legs as if she was playing too and shouting encouragement. He rarely showed any emotion during the proceedings and never invited her to home games for fear that she might embarrass him by cheering too much or ask too many questions about the off-side rule. My mother learned to curb her excitement in his presence and in private was often scathing of his fanaticism. She’d retreat to the kitchen during Saturday afternoons and I’d help her prepare pastry, pies and puddings. You’re a smart kid, she’d say. Tell me what’s so special about watching twenty-two silly men in short pants, kicking a bloated pig’s bladder around a muddy field? I had no answer for her except that it kept him out of trouble. Her jaw dropped at my response. She laughed out loud and said, at least a bit of trouble might liven things up around here.
My mother spent her entire marriage tolerating the endless football coverage on television, and later in her life, I’d hear her muttering about his obsession as she prepared our Saturday evening meals. I’m sure it was hard being a football fan’s wife; she was practically a widow during the season, and I had a sense that she was at her wits’ end. One afternoon, I entered the kitchen and caught her wiping a tear from her eye. Is everything all right? I asked her, and she told me she was disappointed. My father had promised to look at a holiday brochure and consider taking us away for a break. He’d glanced at the pictures of cheerful people on sun-soaked beaches and remarked that the photography was excellent. When she asked him if any of the vacations appealed to him, he said yes. He thought they all looked fantastic, however he’d satisfied his urge for a holiday now and said that he felt as if he’d been there, just by browsing through the illustrations. I gave her a loving hug, and she kissed my cheek and told me not to worry. I’m fine, Poppet, she whispered in my ear. It’s just those damn onions, she assured me. Honestly, love, I’m perfectly fine.
My father never travelled to away matches, because he wasn’t keen on crowds of rowdy football fans. In his mind, football was a solitary sport, a cerebral game played over many decades at weekly intervals. He saw it as an ongoing series of smaller battles that contributed towards a greater war; a bit like the life-cycle of an ever-evolving organism that grew, lived, breathed and withered as its various constituent parts bloomed and atrophied again. For him, football was almost a religious experience and dominated his life to the exclusion of everything else except fellow fanatics. If you weren’t a proper fan who loved the intricate details of the game, he wouldn’t bother making conversation. My father had a couple of pals who’d come round for a cup of tea before a match and they’d discuss football. To anybody who didn’t know them, it was as if they all spoke a foreign language. They could converse for what seemed like hours; exchanging and comparing their football facts prior to donning their scarves and trudging off to the stadium. For those rare moments of conviviality, my father appeared to be content and enjoying life to the full. However, I suspected he’d regret excluding his closest family members from his private world. Sure enough, in later years his addiction to football left him isolated after his pals died and his health failed him. He dreaded emptying his catheter in the stadium toilet; it can’t be the most dignified of activities and his pride stopped him from attending any more matches by himself.
I never got the football bug. However, I understood enough to know his team was out-played most weekends and then recovered sufficiently to face more punishment a week later. Listening to my father, you’d imagine Bury FC were regularly pulverised, but most seasons they drew enough matches to bob about and hover half way down the league. He never admitted they were a “middling” team, and he always talked about their past triumphs, despite their glory days being well before his early childhood. He’d recall when there was standing room only on the terraces and after they scored, his uncle would hoist the lad onto his shoulders to prevent him from getting squashed in the melee.
My paternal grandfather wasn’t much interested in sport and it was my father’s enthusiastic uncle who encouraged his interest. I imagine he’d be surprised to see how nephew’s passion had developed into an over-riding obsession. I’m sure my great-uncle enjoyed the beautiful game but had no head for endless statistical analysis. Besides, there was far less to remember just after the war; smaller leagues with fewer teams and a shorter season.
Since my father’s sad demise, I wondered if he gave up following football when Bury FC went bankrupt or whether a lifetime of disappointment was as much as he could stomach. After the club went into liquidation, I broached the subject of following an alternative team; maybe a big one in the Premiership? He torpedoed the idea and said he was too honourable to change allegiance on a whim. He despised the top flight teams and everything they represented; greed, elitism, as well as their opportunistic and mercenary behaviour.
He told me, in football’s early decades, players earned a pittance compared to today’s wages, and there was a team spirit and sense of fair-play that defined the sport. As far as he was concerned, the beautiful game had spiralled into rows about wages and players moved to clubs that offered the most money and showed no loyalty to the fans. The ethos of football had faded away just like his health, and neither was the same after that spark had been lost.
I visited my father every other day after my mother passed away and made sure he ate properly. However, it was sad to see him sitting in front of a blank television screen, twiddling his thumbs and short of something to do. The old place was looking neglected and there were minor jobs that required attention, however he hadn’t much idea how or where to start. Basic maintenance was my mother’s domain. He must have missed my mother in his own little way, but mainly because all those basic chores around the home just happened. As if by magic, his clothes were cleaned and pressed, carpets vacuumed and meals appeared twice a day and three times at weekends. I’m sure he didn’t take it for granted and he was probably grateful in his own peculiar way; you’d just never know it because he showed precious few signs of appreciation.
I learned all about how to maintain a home during my early teenage years. My mother taught me how to fix and mend stuff around the house. If a light bulb ever failed, my father would give a little cough by way of announcement and say, we really need to think about replacing that bulb or it’s dark in here with only one light. My mother would look at me, rolling her eyeballs and I’d scuttle off to her supply cupboard and produce a spare or make a note and buy a new one on our next shopping trip.
After my mother died, my father was too proud to ask for help around the house. If I offered assistance, he was reluctant to accept, saying that nothing mattered and it could all wait until tomorrow. In the end, it was easier to do the chores rather than argue or debate it for hours on end. Even thinking about it gave him cause to be upset.
My mother’s stoicism was without comparison and doesn’t exist in today’s world. I don’t know how or why their marriage lasted. The poor woman’s loyalty was remarkable because she must have endured tedium beyond measure. She lived for her family and in return received all the love and help I could offer her. We learned to cope with life together despite the brooding ogre in the front room watching his relentless sports channels, with a silent passion that defied understanding.
I think he wanted a son who was into football. A daughter who liked the arts would never get any attention unless I’d put on a pair of boots and got covered in mud, or remained by his side and kept quiet while he enjoyed his sport. I use the word enjoyed in a general sense, because you’d never know he derived any pleasure from it. He showed no emotion when Bury FC scored a goal; he’d enjoy moaning when they lost and seemed to be surprised if there was a victory. It was a fluke, he’d say, or it’s about time they pulled up their socks.
It’s surprising what thoughts occur during a funeral service. However, I left the chapel with a smile on my face. My father’s choice of music during the committal was a popular football song from his youth and coming from a man who said so little, it was appropriate for him to have the last word. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the lyrics.
How does the song go?
It’s something like this -
“Oh, he’s football crazy!
He's football mad!
And the football, it has robbed him o'
The wee bit o' sense he had…”