Dermot and I broke up over football. That is what I like to tell people. I can even pinpoint the match that set everything off. Norwich City vs. Man U. The argument took off when Dermot checked the score on his phone in the middle of sex. With me. I always switch my phone off during sex but I’m seven years older than Dermot, who is twenty-nine. I remember unplugging the landline in my first rented flat before closing my bedroom door and facing a boy. I still find phone jacks a bit sexual. Maybe Dermot’s dismay about Norwich losing contributed to his dwindling of erection. Maybe not. It’s too late to ask now.
‘He’s a bloke, isn’t he? Blokes like football,’ Jojo says to me. Jojo is my best friend, or at least the closest thing to it. I wasn’t a ‘best friend’ person at school. But other girls like having best friends, Jojo for example. Maybe football is like that for Dermot, like stepping into a warm bath. Except there is nothing warm about Jojo today. Saying ‘blokes like football’ isn’t the same as saying ‘blokes have testicles,’ I argue. What Jojo really means, which she goes on to announce, is that your man will always have ‘things’ that you don’t like and vice versa and that you learn to accept them. Especially if the ‘thing’ is as big as the sky, so big that everyone likes it apart from you and a crucial score-kick from a dark handsome man can raise the actual GDP of whatever poor tropical country he hails from. She says I haven’t been patient enough with Dermot and his ‘things’; my knowledge of economics doesn’t fool her.
‘Even if he spends more time on the ‘things’ than me?’ I interject.
‘Better than him copping off with some other girl,’ says Jojo. But is it? I am now a bit stirred by football, the thing what took my baby. Except I’ll never know football. I’ll never sit in a huge stadium doing a Mexican wave like Billy Crystal and his friend in When Harry Met Sally as Billy tells the friend about his wife leaving him and the removal men knowing about it before he does. Football is like a town on my commute where I might run into Dermot; a town where I don’t know anyone but keep passing through.
Dermot didn’t just watch. He played. Perhaps that justifies his love of football to me in some way. He used to play up in the countryside of East Anglia where his parents still live. I didn’t meet them as we didn’t go out for long. I never will, mostly likely. I mean, of course it’s not an immutable law that I won’t meet them. It’s just deeply unlikely and it’s strange to know that fact, like all the people I would get on with but won’t meet who live in Hong Kong, or all the girls I’m not friends with because I didn’t get into their school. He told me his father pushed him with the football – pushed hard. Clearly there was something to push – he was good at it during school, possibly the best. My parents never pushed me at anything. They were too busy writing and putting on plays. Now I’m a theatre-frequenting bankruptcy lawyer and I’ve helped them buy a flat. Dermot’s parents are schoolteachers. Chemistry and geography, I think. I sometimes imagine the conversations we’ll never have. I imagine his mother, who I’ve never seen a picture of, so of course she looks like him in my mind to the point where I almost fancy her – the same pale greyish eyes and reddish-blonde wavy hair. The first thing I said when I met Dermot was ‘I want your hair’. He took this as a come on but it just leapt out of me – I must have spent a fortune in my twenties dying my hair to look like that. I imagine Mr and Mrs McAllister sitting opposite me in their kitchen, while Dermot, their pin-striped, code-writing son, blushes like a teenager, wondering how he came to be with a well-off London girl. Even though he’s earning nicely too. Mrs McAllister is probably wondering if I dare discuss babies with him and might go so far as to feel sorry for me. Mr McAllister is wondering what sort of nick my body is in, possibly for the same reason, possibly not. These days, in the fantasies that persist even though Dermot is four months gone, they are talking about football and I go quiet (no point mentioning When Harry Met Sally to this pair – they’ve barely seen a movie in decades – this Dermot told me in the real world) and it’s ‘you’re awful quiet, Cressie,’ really hoping I’m ok, do I want tea, knowing I can’t be OK because Dermot is leaving me and they already know I’m not the one who will come each year for Christmas and cheer at the edge of the field for their grandson in his first game. Soccer mom. They probably don’t know that term either. I don’t enjoy the daydream at this point, so I gear the plot towards Dermot taking me away from the dinner table up to his old bedroom where the trophies and the old stud shoes lie strewn and on the walls are pictures of him and The Team, whoever they are, mud spraying off a slide-kick like a paused TV commercial. His face in the photos is twisted with determination. I ask him about them, joke about seeing the exact facial expression in bed, but he doesn’t want to talk, he wants to be seventeen again, hiding with a girl in his room, making so few sounds his parents know exactly what’s going on. It’s ecstasy.
I end it with a dash for the train, claiming I can’t stay the night. He drives me to the station and we text during the journey – he misses me already. I switch trains at London Bridge so I pass Millwall Stadium going home to South-East London and think each time how much it resembles a giant paddling pool when you gallop past it. I think this in real life too but now Millwall is fused with the world of Dermot, a world I don’t know and he doesn’t know either because I’ve given him that world in my mind. I always imagine the put down I’ll deliver if I see him again and how he’d have to provoke me to say it, which I’m sure he won’t, he’s a nice guy really, but it’s always the same. What have I to do with you?