Photograph by Danyelle Rolla, Story by Rachel Malik
They forced Erika to go really. Maybe it was because she was new in the office and didn’t feel that she
could say no.
Free tickets from a client. Now that didn’t happen every day.
Nearly everyone else was going.
European Club Cup Quarter Finals. Something like that, said Carrie, who worked opposite Erika. Carrie really liked Erika but she didn’t go in the end because she hated football. Alice was pleased about that because she liked Erika too.
Alice took a bagful of miniatures from the office which they drank on the tube – more free stuff. Erika had a drink the colour of orange jelly, a coffee Baileys and a sapphire blue drink which smelt of the dentist. She was light-headed before they even reached the pub.
The pub was recommended, a fan pub, five star. It was called The Pride.
‘Are you OK,’ Alice asked, as Erika stood swaying in the doorway, ‘you look a bit pale.’
‘I used to live around here,’ Erika said.
‘Oh my God,’ Alice said, as if this was exciting, ‘where?’
‘Just round the corner.’
‘Wow! So The Lions are your team.’
She looked around the pub, goggle-eyed, feeling young. It used to be dingy and dark with red and green wallpaper. Now it was bright and slick but there was still a wall of team photos and heroic newspaper headlines. There was TRIUMPH; VICTORY; AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES. All the pictures had the same speckled gold frames. Erika had come here first with her mates when they were fifteen. Tried to get served. They’d made her order because she was tall. She was supposed to sound relaxed, like she knew what she wanted, but she faltered at the finish. It was like tripping over. Erika screwed it up. Why break the habit of a lifetime?
Her new workmates were enjoying their night out. They loved the replica cups and Theo was joking about the menus which offered Victory Brunch and a Consolation Cocktail. Good people, and she started to join in. Someone spilt a drink on Alice’s phone and she asked Erika for a tissue. Outside, she led them along the street, her old street, picked out her old house. They’d never seen her so chatty.
In the hazy city night, the stadium looked like a ring of Saturn. Once inside, they were streamed towards their stand, their aisle, their seats.
They were so busy talking they almost missed the start of the match.
She’d been five when they moved into that house, and The Lions had just paid for a new pitch in the park. The pitch was just across their garden wall. Weren’t they lucky? She remembered watching the building, the orange bulldozer, the cement turning. Then one day the pitch was finished and all the machines went away. The Astroturf was lime green. It was open till 10 o’ clock at night and there were great white lights. She used to hear the local teams playing when she was in the bath, shouts bouncing off the wet tiles. An endless supply of balls was kicked into their garden. Sometimes young men would come looking for them, ringing politely on the door bell. But they multiplied all the same: she was Queen of Balls. Between the garden wall and the pitch net was a no-man’s land of squashed cans and broken glass and dead mattresses. When she was six, Erika jumped into the no-man’s land and became blood-bond brothers with Adam from next door. They licked raspberry jam off each other’s hands and vowed to share everything. Erika gave Adam her Lego Spiderman and Adam told her a secret. The secret was a narrow track that led from the back wall to a flap in the netting. They could crawl through and get on to the pitch early, before anyone else. Even when the gates were locked. They could play football whenever they liked.
At the end of the first half, the score was one all. The Lions’ defence had been a master class. Everyone agreed. This kind of talk was easy, Erika thought. Theo, who was hungry, went to get hot dogs for everyone.
The second half of the match began. Was this pitch really the same size as the one across her childhood wall?
That pitch. Green as limes. She and Adam were considered the luckiest kids ever to live so close. All through school, it was the official playing field. All through school, Adam was the best in class at running, catching, football. Adam got to pick teams. It was the same after school and Adam always chose Erika, even though she was dopey. They were blood-jam bonded brothers, weren’t they? And then Erika would run around trying to look eager and keep her eye on the ball. But when she got the chance, she’d stare across at the sycamore tree, gently waving, marking her house. Long for the game to be over, know that she couldn’t leave. They were jam-bonded brothers.
Only once did Erika say, when they were walking home: ‘you don’t have to choose me, I wouldn’t mind.’
‘You’re my best friend,’ Adam said, and then: ‘I can still win, even with you.’
Even now, years later, she never wanted to be the first to leave.
For the match was over. And despite giving it their all, The Lions had crashed out. Lions fans trooped off gloomily. Somewhere, a group of Spanish fans were singing and it echoed round the stadium.
‘We’re going on somewhere, are you coming,’ Alice asked.
‘Yeah, we’re going to drown our sorrows,’ Theo said cheerfully.
‘Or,’ said Alice, ‘would you rather go and lick your wounds in private?
Erika said nothing.
‘Why are they called The Lions’, she asked.
‘I have no idea’, Erika said. ‘I hate football.’
And they both started laughing.
‘I’ll catch you up,’ Erika said.
They left her on the empty stands. She waited a moment and then climbed jubilantly up on to her seat.
Rachel Malik is a writer. Her first novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves was published by Penguin in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. She was Writer in Residence at Gladstone's Library in 2018. Before this, Rachel worked for 18 years as an academic, specialising in how the 19th century novel was written, published and read. She is currently working on her second novel. You can find her here - @RachelMalik99
Danyelle Rolla was born and raised in Liverpool in the 1980’s and with a background in the military, she is a social documentary photographer whose practice explores the contemporary British class system and its mis/representation. You can follow her here - @rollaphotography