It happened in the blink of an eye. The ball was passed from one set of hands to another, to another and yet another. At length, the ball was snapped to the tall blonde boy named Nathan Johnson.
Nathan gripped the ball tightly in his hands, eyes flicking to his left—the direction the ball came from—and to his right, seeking and finding a further set of hands to which he could unload the ball. However, unlike the rest of the team, who played football like it was a game of hot potato, Nathan held onto the ball. The time wasn’t right to pass. Not yet. Not with the touchline only about fifteen metres ahead.
This was the closest the team had come to scoring a try; and they were behind seven to nil. If Nathan scored this try—if he even helped to score this try—then there’d be some semblance of pride to take home with him that afternoon.
He paced forward a few steps, eyes frantic, moving left and right. So far, the line moved up alongside and behind him. So far so good. And at this early stage, the opposition line had only encroached a few feet closer, all of the boys nominating a player on the opposition to “tag.” Nathan scanned the line, trying to make out just who it was who’d nominate that they’ve got “ball,” which meant that their responsibility was to watch the player with the ball and move with them.
As of yet, nobody had called “ball.” But everyone had named their “tag.” At first, this situation didn’t bother Nathan. Maybe, because he was the new kid, they thought he’d just siphon off his pass and just play hot potato like the rest of his mismatched team. They were the odds and sods, the rejects in the primary school caste; mainly town kids, who you could spot because they wore black school shoes instead of work boots and their shirts were ironed. Their opposition were all country kids. All of whom wore clod hoppers and were built like brick walls. So far this lunchtime, they’d dominated the play, using their size, as opposed to their skill, to outplay the disorganised town rabble. It seemed to Nathan, the newcomer, that this was the way it was always played out. It must be a bit of a tradition out here in the sticks, hundreds of miles from anywhere; and millions of miles from home.
Well, fuck it, Nathan told himself. There is no way I’m going to accept being a loser. He knew that there was only one way to prove himself. And while he was standing, able to run, with the ball in his hand, he’d not quit. He didn’t want these farmer boys to think he was less than what they were. Just because he was wearing leather school shoes and his shirt was neatly pressed, that didn’t mean he was rich and snobby. They might have trampled on the souls of his team-mates, bullied and pushed them around; that didn’t mean that they intimidated Nathan. There were bigger kids from where he came from; and there will always be bigger kids. It didn’t mean that you had to back down just because you were smaller.
Nathan licked his lips, jogging slowly forward. The opposition line was still hanging back, giving him room in which to move. Their eyes watched closely, and though he couldn’t see their collective gaze, he could feel it. They were reluctant to approach, not knowing whether or not this city kid had any skills. Each time Nathan had found himself in possession of the ball, he was allowed to run with it; at least for a little while. And each time he did, he was watched carefully by twelve sets of eyes. Scrutinised, studied; tracked.
The touchline loomed only about ten metres ahead. The opposition line had begun running off the touchline; but they’d only jogged forward a few metres themselves. Looking furtively left and right over his shoulders, Nathan could see that some of his team-mates had kept up with him. More than half had slowed down to a walk, hands on hips, or clutched over their heads to draw breath that they’d hardly wasted on playing.
The only kid who seemed as interested in playing as Nathan did was jogging alongside him to his right. There was a thin red headed beanstalk between them, who looked as if he’d snap if he were shoved too hard. Each time the ball flew his way, he’d either drop it after fumbling like a buffoon, or toss it away as if it were alight and scorching his hands off. This other kid, though, held his ground; even now in the latter stages of the game, where spirits were low and tempers paper thin.
There was only one kid that Nathan really had to worry about, though. That was that bully, Tyson. He’d made himself known to everyone in the early stages of the game, palming kids off with his huge hands, and pushing others onto the ground even when they’d relinquished control of the ball. He was at the back of the line now, eyes glued to Nathan’s movements, his face held in the scowl Nathan had seen on pictures of Neanderthals in the World Book Encyclopaedia.
It came was no surprise to Nathan when Tyson suddenly shouted, “Ball!” and jogged his way back into the front line. He’d only just returned to the game after sneaking off to smoke a cigarette, and only played when his team were defending—mainly because he was as uncoordinated as a newborn lamb, and as fast on his feet as a tortoise. Nathan doubted that Tyson wanted to play touch football. The game Tyson wanted to play was what was known by another name in the city: “Kill the Dill with the Pill.” And right now, Nathan had the Pill; that meant he was a moving target.That meant he was ripe for the picking.