I’ve got my ticket. I can’t quite believe how I managed it — I keep studying it under a magnifying glass and holding it up to the light to make sure it’s real — but I’ve got one. And like a lover who has to introduce the subject of the loved one into every conversation, I tell people who aren’t remotely interested in Saturday’s FA Cup Final all about it.
It’s a kind of revenge. Village life consists mainly of people pinning you up against a dry-stone wall and telling you things that neither concern nor interest you. Have you ever driven through a rural area and remarked how village after village appears to be deserted? Friends, they aren’t deserted: we’re all hiding from the village bores.
A branch of Alpha, the nationwide evangelical Christian outreach programme, meets at our house once a month. The organisers, a mixture of church ladies and chapel women, are all what they would call ‘on fire for Jesus’. I have no problem with this. I used to fitfully smoulder for him a bit myself, and then I went out. But what irritates is the assumption, if I should encounter any of them in the kitchen, that I’m still alight myself.
Last week I listened patiently to a very nice Christian lady relating a breathless tale about a recent Alpha convert, to whom God had spoken directly. God had told him to go to west Africa, of all places, which he did, and since his arrival he’s been doing ‘great things’, apparently, with ‘the orphans’. Frankly, the only thing I’ve been interested in this week is whether Dean Ashton is going to be fit to play. I’ve been dwelling on it morning, noon and night. But I listened politely, as I always do.
But I have grown tired, so very tired, lately, of splashing about in the shallows of other people’s preoccupations. I’ve had enough. If you are seen as a good listener, people just don’t stop. When I worked as a cleaner in a mental hospital, and word got round that I was a good listener, patients literally queued up in an orderly fashion.
Well, I’m a listener no longer. From now on I’m going to talk instead of listen. And this Alpha woman was going to be the first to find out. I clenched my fists, shook them at her in triumph and said, ‘I’ve got my ticket!’
She looked at me. I’ve got my ticket? Was this perhaps a new evangelical Christian catchphrase, current among the young people; a modern equivalent, perhaps, of ‘Bound for Glory!’ Was I telling her I’d made a recommitment? She backed her instinct. ‘Why, Jeremy, that is marvellous news!’ she beamed. ‘Praise the Lord!’
I removed my Cup Final ticket from my wallet and proudly showed it to her. I didn’t let her touch it. I just held it under her nose and let her look and marvel. ‘It’s a miracle,’ I said, humbly. Then I told her about how West Ham’s ticket allocation for the match at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff (capacity 75,000), was a paltry 23,000. (West Ham could sell three times that amount.) And I told her how the club, in tune for once with the sentiment of its supporters, had put out a statement last week saying how ‘very disappointed’ it was to have received so few. On Merseyside they must feel the same way: a Royal Mail delivery van was robbed last week and a consignment of Cup Final tickets was stolen. Worth doing, I told her, when Cup Final tickets are fetching £1,000 a pair on the black market.
I put the final in perspective for her. With so few tickets among the bumper crowd, it’s going to be like the miracle of the three loaves and the five fishes in a way. It’s 25 years since we last reached the FA Cup Final. Cardiff town centre on Saturday morning will be one gigantic claret-and-blue knees-up. Ticket or no ticket, everyone’s going. I know of one 50-strong coach party going down from Barking, of whom only six people have tickets. And I know of two women, no tickets, don’t even like football, going just for the sex.
I detected that she was losing interest in my shallow preoccupations. But I had a lot of politely listening to other people’s banalities to avenge. My main worry, I went on, was getting carried away and drinking too much, like I did a fortnight ago at the semi-final. It wasn’t until I read the match reports in the papers the next day that it all started coming back to me.
She started to look desperate. ‘I’d better carry these tea things in,’ she said. (She was protecting herself with a tray of cups and saucers.) The vicar, one part diffidence, one part arrogance, one part psychosis, came in. She was off the hook. ‘Vicar! I’ve got my ticket!’ I said, reaching for my wallet.