Middle child was quiet. Youngest, sensing that something was amiss, was also quiet. The street was quiet, even the usual mad rush to leave school at 3:30 had been muted. Those couple of hundred white polo-shirted bodies of varying levels of shortness - usually a chaos of escapees - were subdued.
Middle child pushed himself half-heartedly on his scooter, traveling at no more than walking pace, his head low, his long hair swinging limply in the breezeless heat.
The dad knew it wasn’t just the heat. The sun had filled the streets for three straight weeks and was making everybody wilt, but this wasn’t it.
This was football. World Cup football and England’s surprise run to the semi-final.
Most of which had been lost on youngest. Youngest was not a fan. Everything World Cup related had sailed over his head ever since Costa Rica, his class’s pick in the school sweepstake, had been eliminated. Even while the Costa Ricans were still in it he hadn’t followed any of it except to badger the dad daily about how the South Americans were doing. Losing their first two games had not seemed to stop youngest’s daily assumption that they’d be better tomorrow. When they finally got their one and only point youngest had assumed that they would play again. Tomorrow. And they’ll be better. The dad had felt genuine sympathy for his youngest once he’d finally accepted that for this World Cup there were no more tomorrows. His little face had not stayed sad for long, however, and football was put back into the mental bin labelled ‘Stuff the brothers do’.
But even he knew to be quiet the day after England had lost their semi-final.
The dad let the silence stroll with them for another couple of corners and then, when they had a street to themselves, finally gave in. ‘Are you still sad about last night?’ he asked.
A slight nod only confirmed by a more vigorous swing of hair.
‘It’ll be okay,’ the dad said. He stopped himself from saying life goes on, and marvelled again, as he always did, at how football was so often linked to grief. A loss shouldn’t be a death, but the healing process was something similar. Particularly in tournaments. A poor result for the club we support could be wiped by a better performance and result the following fixture. It took weeks of defeats to get to anything like the feeling of losing a quadrennial game. Being Grimsby Town fans meant that this feeling was not exactly rare, but still, it didn’t often feel like it would hurt forever. Middle knew that there wouldn’t be a chance to heal this wound properly for another four years.
Middle didn’t reply.
‘Honestly,’ the dad persisted, ‘it will be okay. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but it will be.’
‘It’s alright for you,’ he mumbled through his hair. He didn’t look up and continued to push himself on his scooter as if his wheels were stuck in the grass of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
‘Why?’ the dad asked.
‘Because you’re old. You’ve seen it all before. You’ve seen England lose loads of times.’ He still mumbled but he was making sure he could be heard.
‘Well, so have you. Remember the last World Cup in Brazil? Remember the Euros and Iceland!’
‘They didn’t matter. They were just group games. I’ve not seen them lose proper games.’
‘Iceland was a knock-out game. They knocked us out!’
‘But we were rubbish and being rubbish meant it didn’t matter.’
‘Football’s rubbish,’ youngest piped up.
‘Shut up!’ middle demanded. He finally raised his head, a whirl of hair whipping the words at his younger brother.
‘Not really the time,’ the dad pointed out to youngest, who just shrugged. He suddenly seemed to realise that the street was empty and he snaked his hand into the dad’s; he didn’t hold hands anymore if he thought any of his mates might see. Three corners from home meant he was almost certainly safe.
It was true, the dad realised, life did go on. Time moved, people got older, matches were won and lost and your youngest child no longer wanted to be seen holding hands.
‘I wish I’d seen them just be rubbish this time,’ said middle. His voice was firmer now, his surety in his solution giving him confidence in his grief. ‘I wish they’d failed at the groups like they usually do. I wish they’d just failed!’
‘No you don’t,’ said the dad. ‘This is the World Cup you’ll remember most. This is your 1990.’
‘No it’s not,’ middle bit back. ‘You said we should’ve won that game but last night Croatia were better.’
‘I suppose so,’ the dad replied.
‘England got all that way and weren’t good enough. And they didn’t play rubbish. They weren’t rubbish, they just weren’t good enough. I don’t want to see them do that again. I want to be older and just see them fail again and again and then I wouldn’t be bothered like you’re not.’
‘I am bothered,’ the dad said, slightly miffed that his own disappointment was dismissed. But he realised, even as he spoke, that his words had lacked conviction. The dad tried to think at which stage of grief anger came. Pretty much this one, he told himself while not being able to think of anything to say to cheer middle up. The fact that his own anger had subsided pretty much by the time he went to bed made him wonder if the anger stage was lessened each time. When he was older, would he be able to watch friends and family die and not be bothered?
‘It’s alright for you,’ middle continued. The dad thought he looked and sounded like he was only going to continue. He was a grieving runaway train and the dad was just a figure on the tracks, a long way behind and watching it recede. ‘You’ve seen them not be good enough all the time. I just want to be older and see them be rubbish so that I can be used to it as well. Just fail and fail and fail again.’
The dad was worried that middle was right, that he had seen so much failure he was inured to it, that he was like some kind of serial killer that had lost the thrill and now every death was just another, and another death would be along pretty soon so it didn’t matter, just keep sharpening the blade and maybe one day it’ll feel real again…
‘What’s up?’ youngest asked.
The dad looked down at the youngest and realised he had literally shaken the thoughts from his head and the youngest had noticed. ‘Nothing,’ the dad said, telling himself his thoughts were ridiculous and that sometimes he tried too hard to think of similes.
They rounded the last corner. Youngest slipped his hand away and ran for the gate. ‘What’s for tea?’ he shouted over his shoulder.
Middle stayed with the dad, their progress no slower or quicker than it had been, the wheels of the scooter still torturously slow.
‘Think it might be a chippy night,’ the dad said.
Youngest hooted his pleasure and middle’s scooter was pushed just a little faster.