Brian loved football nearly as much as he loved Virginia.
He was a member of The Dympton Wanderers under-eleven team. His dad Sid went to all the games and so did his granddad when his legs would take him to the park.
Most days his mum would go the butcher’s, greengrocer’s or the baker’s shop not far from their house or to the grocery shop on the corner, so long as she could cook a nice dinner for Sid and Brian she was happy.
Brian liked to go to the allotment with his granddad on Sunday mornings; it was better than the cold, dark church. His Mum wanted him to go to Sunday school and to church every Sunday. She made him go when he was little, and he had to sit in the church with her listening to the vicar going on about saving people. He hated hearing the man behind him who sang hymns so loud and so out-of-tune every Sunday. Brian thought he would like to be ‘saved’ from listening to the horrible deep voice. He decided one day that he had been going for a long time and did not know one person who had been saved. When he was ten and old enough to make up his own mind, he stopped going, he refused to go anymore. His mum didn’t stop going but she wouldn’t give him extra apple pie the following Sunday as a punishment, and she soon got used to going on her own.
He could now go down the allotment every Sunday. Brian liked picking fruit off the bushes in the summer. There were red currant bushes, blackcurrants, he didn’t like them so much, and gooseberry bushes. He heard his Dad and grandad laughing one day about the gooseberry bushes. He couldn’t see what was so funny, but he heard his grandad tell his dad ‘that was where we found you’. He could not see the joke. However, Brian looked under the gooseberry bushes every time he went to the allotment after that day. Just in case. His granddad liked growing cabbages too, though Brian couldn’t understand why. Nobody liked cabbage…surely? Though he ate a few Brussel sprouts with his Christmas dinner even though they were like little baby cabbages; he drowned them in Mum’s lovely thick gravy.
It had now reached Brian’s last term at primary school. He wanted to talk to Virginia, a girl in a class below him; he thought she was very pretty. It had even confused him as he took his Eleven-plus exams. He couldn’t stop thinking about her.
One day at the allotment, when his granddad had run out of breath from digging and was just propping up his fork, he plucked up courage.
“Granddad, how did you meet Gran?”
Sid senior thought about it, trying to remember. He took off his cap and rubbed what was left of his hair and looked up at the sky.
“Let me see.” He watched a robin digging in the newly turned patch of earth.
“Now then, Brian…where did I meet your gran?”
His forehead looked even more wrinkly than usual to Brian.
“That’s what I asked you.” Brian said.
His granddad chuckled and it started him coughing, his eyes watered, and his face went red. He rubbed his head again and dabbed his eyes with a cotton hanky.
“I met her at school. We went to the same school. We were childhood sweethearts.”
As they walked back to his granddad’s house Brian considered the answer. They said goodbye.
When he went indoors Granddad Sid said to his wife that he thought Brian was becoming interested in girls. She told him not to be so silly.
‘Met at school.’ This rolled round his head as he walked home. Virginia would still have one more year at St.Mark’s after he left in the summer. I might not see her again. Alarmed at this thought, he resolved to try harder to pluck up courage to talk to her. At the allotment he had nearly told his granddad that he loved a girl at school; he only just stopped himself; more than once. He thought granddad might laugh or that he might blush. As he walked home that Sunday he could only think of Virginia.
“Perhaps we could be ‘childhood sweethearts.’ He shuddered and looked all around; he had said it out loud. No one heard. The streets were empty, only the pub on the corner of his Granddad’s road was busy when he went by. He could hear men laughing and talking when he went by the door. He could see the cigarette smoke wisping out too. He knew his Dad went in there sometimes, and granddad. Maybe I will one day? He didn’t like the smell on his dad’s jacket when he been there or Grandad Sid’s if he had been to the pub.
Every day at school he would try to see her, in the playground or walking to school with her mum. One Saturday he saw her in the park but he was with his team. He made himself wave to her but she didn’t wave back. He stood near her in the playground one break-time, she was on her own, which was unusual, but he couldn’t speak. No words came out even though he was thinking them. He tried several times. One night during the Easter term he had cried into his pillow because he had seen her holding another boy’s hand. She was smiling too. The more he wanted to talk to her, the harder it seemed. He started to a few times but she didn’t appear to even know he was talking to her, and besides it made him feel ill, his mouth went dry, he felt giddy and his heart nearly jumped out of his chest.
Summer came, he played cricket for the school team and still he hadn’t talked to Virginia ‘properly’. He saw her at the school sports. He clapped and cheered harder than anyone when she went up to get a prize for winning the hula hoop competition.
The Summer term ended, and he left St. Mark’s Primary School, The Wanderers under-eleven football team and Virginia behind. He had not managed one proper conversation with Virginia and she wouldn’t know that he loved her.
The Summer holidays seemed to go very quickly. He had fun playing with the twins from Bristol he met at the caravan park on the family seaside holiday. They all said they would write to each other. His Mum told his Dad off for entering the ‘Knobbly knees’ competition. “Showing me up,” she said. His dad laughed and winked at Brian, he didn’t win but the twins grandad came second. That week was one of the best of his life.
September came around and in his new uniform with long trousers, he arrived at Barley Secondary Modern School gates. His Mum was sad when they knew he had failed the Eleven-plus for Dympton Boys Grammar school. There was so much new to absorb, he almost forgot the girl-of-his-dreams. He did see her on a couple of occasions with her mum, and then with some girls in the town, but he didn’t think she had seen him. He still thought about her even though there were some nice-looking girls at the new school.
His dad came into his bedroom one morning during that first term at the new school; Brian was hardly awake, his dad seemed serious, and Brian noticed straight away that his eyes were red.
“I have to tell you something son. Your granddad died last night.” He eventually said. Brian hadn’t ever seen his dad cry. He cried too. He couldn’t eat the breakfast his mum had cooked. She said, “Never mind.” And stroked his head. He thought his mum’s eyes were wet too. It hurt in his chest and he would cry some more over the coming days.
The Dympton Wanderers had formed a youth team by the time Brian reached fourteen; he was a reserve for the first team despite his young age. His dad laughed at him when his voice was breaking and would tease him; his mum would hold his hand and smile.
“Say something else,” they would say. “You’ll be getting interested in girls soon son.”
One day when it was just him and his mum sitting in the garden with a glass of orange squash she turned to her son.
“What do you want to do when you leave school Brian dear?”
Brian hadn’t given much thought to this, schoolwork and football occupied most of his thoughts.
“I’m gonna marry Virginia.”
“Pardon?” said his mum. “Who’s Virginia?”
He became flustered and wondered why he’d said it, it just came out.
“I um …um…just thought that I would get married one day, like you and dad and gran and granddad. Gran and grandad were childhood sweethearts you know.”
He looked at his mum to see if she had reacted to his answer.
“No, I meant work, what work do you think you might like to do?” she said. “What sort of job do you think you might like?”
Brian was relieved. Perhaps she had not heard properly.
“I don’t really know mum, but I don’t want to be a bricklayer like dad though.” He hesitated.
“Nothing wrong with being a brickie mum…but not in the winter…when your fingertips crack open or when you don’t earn anything because it’s raining or it’s too frosty. I want a job when I’m always paid and where I get paid holidays.” His mum nodded and stroked his hand.
“That’s very sensible Brian dear.”
Brian left school the next year. He was fifteen. Mr Green who lived across the road and went to the pub with his dad, got Brian a job at the factory where he worked to start in September.
Brian saw Virginia in the town that Christmas time; it was a Saturday afternoon, on his way home from work that morning he had popped into town to buy a record. She was across the road with her friend Julie. Brian waved to them. Julie waved back, tugged Virginia’s arm and they crossed the road towards him. Brian’s heart beat faster; his mouth went dry and felt some of that same giddiness as long ago.
“Hello Brian,” said Julie.
“Hello you two…how are you?” he replied. “Do you know I work at Richmond’s factory now?”
“Do you?” Julie asked. She seemed interested but Virginia was looking in the nearby shop window.
“Do you go to the youth club Brian?” Julie asked.
“I went once Julie but my football team always beats their team, so they wouldn’t let me join.”
The girls both laughed at this.
“Come on, Julie,” said Virginia. “Let’s go.”
Brian was desperately trying to think of something to say to stop them going.
“See you then Brian”, Julie said.
“Bye Brian,” Virginia said.
Brian watched them go arm-in-arm.
Now fifteen years later and still at Richmond’s and still a single man. He took Julie out once after meeting her in a pub where she was celebrating her divorce she had told him. They only went out that once though. It wasn’t her he wanted. Julie told him that Virginia had married and moved away and that they hadn’t stayed in touch.
People at the factory were forever asking, “When are you going to get married Brian?”
He always answered the same. “When I meet the girl of my dreams.” Then he would think to himself, ‘I’ve already met her.’
When he had worked at Richmond’s factory for twenty-five years, his colleagues organised a surprise. He went to the canteen at his usual lunch break time and they all cheered and then sang, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. There was a gas balloon with ‘25’ written on it tied to his usual table. Mavis, one of the cooks came round from behind the counter to do the presentation; the works had a whip-round and had bought him a season ticket for ‘City’, his team. Mavis presented it. She kissed him on both cheeks. Everyone in the canteen cheered.
She asked him the question, “When are you going to get married Brian?”
Then everyone shouted in unison. “When I meet the girl of my dreams.”
Now here in the same canteen he recalled that day twenty-five years before. It was so embarrassing. It was only two weeks till he retired now and he hoped nobody would ask the same question at the retirement party he knew was arranged for August 31st in that same canteen.
He still supported ‘City’. He still lived in the same house; his mum and Dad’s house before they passed away and he still thought about Virginia.
He had been talking to a young woman in the wages office recently and had discovered to his surprise that she was Virginia’s granddaughter. He could see the likeness. She told him that her Nan lived in Kent. Brian told her that he remembered her Nan from school over fifty years before. He didn’t tell her what he once felt for her Nan though. ‘She even smiles like her’.
At the retirement party Mr. Harradance, the managing director, presented Brian with a cuckoo clock and the staff had another whip around and gave him another season ticket for City’s coming season and everyone had signed a big card with wishes of good luck and things like that.Nobody asked him the question. He was so relieved and still was as he put the clock in the boot of his car. With a heavy heart, he had one last glance in his rear-view mirror as he drove through the familiar gates. His eyes were stinging hot but he tried hard to stop the tears he felt arriving. He saw his creased old face in the mirror, his nearly white hair and for a moment he thought he saw his dad or was it grandad Sid?
The following days seemed exceedingly long. Sometimes he went out to start his car at the usual time before he remembered he had nowhere to go. He would go back indoors and make another cup of tea and stare out of the front window.
Christmas came and went. He read a book called The Gardening Club about a group of old men at their allotments, it made him think of his dad and the times with his grandad Sid. Annie next door gave it to him all wrapped in Christmas paper and said he might like it to pass some time. He didn’t read many books, though he enjoyed it and vowed to himself to go to the library and read more. ‘City’ was knocked out of the FA Cup by AFC Bournemouth in January and his car now seemed to find its own way to his GP’s surgery.
He thought he would have a holiday in July. He had been into the local coach company and booked a tour of Kent.
It was a beautiful end-of-June day, thin wisps of fluffy white clouds drifted across the blue sky, insects buzzed in gardens. Brian’s next-door neighbours, Cyril and Annie had not seen him for a while. Annie had told her husband to ring the police station. Cyril had been round and tried Brian’s front and his back door with no response. He had peered through the front window.
Cyril now followed the young WPC in after the constable had forced Brian’s back door open. There he was, Brian, in the back room, in his worn-but-favourite armchair, his head back, his eyes and mouth wide open and cold to the touch, clutching a black-and-white school photograph of boys and girls.