On the second day of the New Year, I rose, dressed, arranged myself on my crutches and hobbled down the road to the station. It was wonderful to be outside again. (Never give credence to ideas that occur to you indoors, said Nietzsche, which I think I’ll take as my New Year’s resolution.) At the station there was a handy ramp up to the ticket office that I’d barely noticed before, then a footbridge over the railway lines to platform two.
At London Bridge station I toppled off the train and stumped through the ticket barrier, down an escalator and along a subway to the Underground station, where I took a Jubilee line train to West Ham, then a District line train to Upton Park. I alighted here with less grace than the word implies, hopped up the stairs to the ticket barriers then propelled myself down Green Street to the Boleyn Ground. Home to Chelsea. (Like the Bantu pastoralist bewildered by the arrival of the settler, the railway line and the grocery store, I’ve turned to the old religion for spiritual and cultural reassurance — thus far with similarly catastrophic results.)
Crutches are a mixed blessing if you’ve got a cracked rib or two. When I got to the ground, I was spent. Captain Oates probably had more of a spring in his step as he passed through the tent-flap on that fateful night than I had as I pushed my way through the turnstile. But I was in. I was of the Elect. And nice and early for a change, too. My seat, when I found it, was in the back row of the upper tier. I took the last few steps on my hands and knees.
After lying in bed for a week with only a cretinous cat for company, sitting down with 30,000 East Enders to watch a game of football is a fantastic welcome back to the world. By half-time I’d revived enough to accept my friend’s offer of a pint of lager. He trotted away to order the drinks from a bar underneath the stand. Unfortunately, he failed to specify which one, and I spent ten minutes of the 15-minute interval tottering up and down crowded staircases mewing in anguish.
And then it was full-time and we’d lost again and it was time to head back. Like our team, however, I’d seized up during the second half. Every step presented its own problem requiring first of all a renewed commitment to the process of moving forwards. On the way out, a steward said, ‘Are you all right, pal?’ I was disappointed, I told him, but I’d get over it.
In the street outside, my friend suggested another pint. There was a handy pub on the way to the station called the Queens, whose doorway was packed with enterprising young men hoping to jump out and ambush the Chelsea fans as they went by. Helped by the most extraordinary powers, the police, however, run a tight ship. At West Ham you can be banned from matches for life for saying you hope it doesn’t rain. Outside the pub was a line of police vans and a line of excited long-haired police Alsations and their handlers. Beautiful animals. It was like a Crufts final. Under these circumstances nothing untoward or controversial was likely to happen apart from a festival of bitten buttocks. The chaps bouncing on their toes in the pub doorway were therefore no more than pageantry, a ceremonial reminder of our glorious past, which, it is possible to argue, is better than nothing.
As I passed the dogs, I counted them. ‘Six!’ I said to my friend. ‘Seven, twat,’ said a handler. ‘You can’t even f–—ing count!’ For a moment I thought he was going to arrest me for a numeracy offence, but I was allowed to proceed. I made eagerly for the pub doorway, but my friend said he was too old and too respectable to enter a pub like that, so we pushed on past the station in search of somewhere quieter.
A little further on, my friend said he was too old and too respectable to enter the Duke of Edinburgh as well. We pushed on again. At a crossroads we turned right and found ourselves deep in the Muslim quarter and not a licensed premises in sight. And outside a grocer’s shop my morale collapsed and I advised my friend I couldn’t carry on.
Happily, the man behind the till in the grocer’s had a relative who drove a taxicab. The relative was there in five minutes and drove us to a pub that was congenial to my friend. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to sit down. Of course I still had to get home. But putting uncomfortable facts out of my mind is, I think, the thing I do best of all, and, as I reached out for that first pint of Fosters Ice Cold, despair had already turned to happiness.