Just before I left France, Oscar’s mum sent over a photo of Oscar in his classroom at school showing the camera two school awards. One was for ‘pupil of the week’, the other for general sporting excellence. His expression was a comic parody of being proud rather than pride itself. I’d seen him hardly at all since last summer, and perhaps for this reason the change wrought in him between his eighth and ninth years astonished me more than if I had seen him constantly.
Last weekend, I picked him up from his mother’s flat and took him to his first football match: Exeter City vs MK Dons. The change in him that I had noticed in the photo was confirmed when he opened the front door, ready with his coat on. He was lankier and a cultivated fringe curled down to his chin. And while remaining essentially his old cheerful, affectionate, modest and observant self, never complaining, never asking for anything, and thick with catarrh as usual, he has largely abandoned polysyllabic speech in favour of eloquent gestures and monosyllables — a result, reckons his mum, of spending too much time in a virtual reality.
In the car on the way I said: ‘Why did you get the “pupil of the week” award?’ He looked carefully at me. ‘Spelling,’ he said. ‘The weekly test?’ He nodded his head once, exaggeratedly. ‘Out of 60?’ He nodded again. ‘How many did you get?’ ‘Sixty.’ ‘And how many did whoever came second get?’ ‘Thirty.’ Oscar’s mother had told me that he is so far ahead of the rest of the class, the teacher makes him sit next to the dimmest boy to help and encourage him. This dim boy also happens to be the same person with whom Oscar shares a bedroom, a sort of orphaned relation. ‘And the sport award? What was that for?’ ‘Netball.’ ‘Do you like netball?’ He nodded. I soon tired of expending so many words for so few in return. And he obviously thought my pride in his academic and sporting achievements was exaggerated and ridiculous. So I happily compromised by putting on ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ from Blood on the Tracks and whacking up the volume.
It’s been several years since I last went to a football match. Neither had I been to see the Grecians, who are League Two. I paid £23 for us to stand on ‘the Hill’. A woman steward stepped forward as we approached the turnstile, peeled off a sticker and stuck it on Oscar’s coat. The sticker was a photo of an Exeter City player. She was a pleasant old dear. ‘Do you think they are going to win today?’ I asked. ‘I’ve got a little bet on that they are going to win 3–1,’ she said. She said it confidentially and sincerely, as one might say: ‘The gift of tongues descended on me last night after months of fasting.’
We stood behind the goal. The Hill is where the more boisterous Exeter City supporters go to sing to the beat of a drum played by a surprisingly accomplished drummer. The songs were adulatory or obscene, sometimes both. To see what was happening on the pitch we had to shade the sun from our eyes with a flat hand. In both halves the action took place almost exclusively at the other end. The one time the ball came up our end was during the second half, when the dazzled goalkeeper made a terrible hash of an easy clearance and the ball rolled into the back of the net. Also in the second half, Oscar ventured a comment that wasn’t elicited by a question. Diffidently, and with the air of someone who would not give his opinion readily, he observed that the MK Dons weren’t much good. He was right. They were pathetic.
I’d forgotten how the cold from a concrete terrace step penetrates the soles of the shoes in winter. I was glad to get back to the car, start the engine and turn the heater up to full power and direct it at my frozen feet. Under questioning, Oscar admitted that his feet were frozen also. After about ten miles, and just as we had warmed up again, the car broke down in a dangerous place on a fast road on the edge of Dartmoor. We had to stand away from it by the side of the road for an hour in freezing temperatures in pitch darkness until a breakdown truck arrived. We were so cold I thought we might die if we had to stand there for much longer. I gave Oscar my coat and woollen hat and cuddled him while we waited. ‘Cold, isn’t it?’ I said to Oscar at one point. His head was enveloped in my arms, but I felt it nod.