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Look at Sandy Flask. Balding but comfortable with it, serious white skin and the hair that gives him his nickname betraying a proud Celtic heritage, and a pair of ears set low, unlobed and mashed like two half melted Frankenstein bolts. Sandy’s the kind of fellow you bump into at a wedding reception and don’t know how to get away from. A squat-bodied rugby man. False, jolly, sporting a quiet expression behind the eyes that most people interpret as desperate.
Sandy has always been competitive, learning everything from his father, a self-confessed ‘trier’ who was never late, never swore, never left his home town. Terry Flask wanted the best for his son so he drilled the boy in the knowledge that second place was worth nothing. Terry woke Sandy at six during the week and eight at weekends, and Sandy has never since been able to shake the habit of the early rise, the brisk compartmentalisation of life’s tedium that his father instilled to help his son survive.
It was Terry who got Sandy into rugby. “He’s the build for it, Carrie,” he’d said as his wife sank before the television, plunging a fist into a family size bag of crisps, closing her eyes in yet another sombre gesture of assent, the kind of gesture you get used to making when you marry young and stay in it for the duration.
“Do you think so?” she asked.
“Too right I do,” he’d replied, lifting his mug of warm milk to his mouth and allowing the delicious liquid to seep through his moustache.
Sandy was never good enough to play for his county or turn pro, but he’s content enough as a prop forward for the local team. Sandy likes the club and the company of men. They make him feel safe. Naturally he’s expected to impress in these environs, drink a lot and endure derisory comments about his penis or the milky eyes that need glasses to help them when off the field, contacts to enable them when on, and just about everything else. But he doesn’t let himself mind.
Ciba Vision Total Dailies are for dry eyes like Sandy’s. They’re expensive lenses but he works hard so he can pay for them. Although Sandy wants the best for himself, posh contacts are the only things he really splashes out on. Restaurants and nice clothes, holidays and wine, these are the trappings of adulthood, but to Sandy’s mind they’re only worth investing in if you’ve someone to enjoy them with. Sandy thinks of this whilst squatting naked in the changing room in front of his compact mirror, tiny transparent disc balanced precariously on the tip of his finger, slowly approaching his eyeball, laughing and saying to no one in particular. “I just need ‘em don’t I?” to which a familiar cursory response comes.
That’s Ossie. Ossie is the other prop, tighthead to Sandy’s loose, the two regularly enveloping Tom who plays hooker, a little man with a dense network of intricate body hair that’s crept like a rash across his torso. Sandy calls the three of them ‘The Three Amigos’, though he has never told anyone this. He finds it difficult not to smile when he thinks of them playing together, and thoroughly rehearses anecdotes and jokes ahead of seeing his two closest team mates.
The team trains on Wednesday and there’s a game each Sunday. After training there’s always drinks, and Sandy makes it his mission to be one of those who sinks a few beers when perhaps they should stop at one. He drinks full pints, not halves. None of that gay shit. And although he wants everyone to know how much he can put away, even he stops short of overtly spelling it out, resorting instead to exaggerating his behaviour, clanking the glass loudly on the bar, smacking his lips or offering to get another round in when he knows he can’t really afford it.
After training, Sandy drives half-cut, angling his car out of the car park with bright beams turned onto fog so he can see better. No one tends to notice, and doing an easy sixty home with the lights slanting like javelins into the other driver’s eyes is a minor transgression. After all, Sandy needs any buzz he can get and the beer gives him the gumption, plus his house – empty save a bed, chairs and a whole lot of canned food, no human life unless you count a picture of Terry and Carrie on the mantle, no heartbeat save his own clinking softly in its red cavern like a lonely hammer on an anvil – won’t provide what the drive does.
Sandy’s home is far too quiet, but he refuses to get a pet. It would only annoy and obligate him, he thinks, and Sam, the neighbour he invited round and coaxed a difficult and guilty blowjob from during half time in England vs. Italy in the Six Nations, once told him that a cat shits more than a dog, which compounded their aloofness in Sandy’s mind. Sandy hopes to tempt Sam back one day. He likes Sam thinking of him as an athlete and went out of his way to describe the role of the loosehead prop forward. Sandy calls Sam loosehead because it’s a great pun, but he’ll never say this out loud, although his teammates might laugh, because he’s scared they won’t get it. Scared it’s not actually funny. Sandy’s a trier and a trier operates on a confidence powered by the untruths they tell themselves. To have a joke fall flat would kill Sandy.
Ciba Vision lenses are a cure for a malady, a weakness. Sandy needs to see to play and he needs to play to make that anvil heart beat enough to jolt him into actually feeling something. When Sandy plays he is alive. He chases the ball and dives on it, cradles the thing as if his life depends on its safety. Sandy loves flopping onto his quarry, the subsequent feeling of loss as he’s lain upon by opponents and teammates; face pushed into the grass, or even better, the mud, shutting his eyes to save the lenses from popping out. In those moments, Sandy knows his place. It is no place. It is between places, between grass blades and work, women and men, amigos and others. Under a pile of bodies on the field, Sandy is conscious of tapping into a feeling of surrender, but outside the confines of rugby isn’t sure how to access this beautiful darkness, so every week comes back in search of it. Sandy’s place is in the team and his team is in him. And it is here in this moment, when he feels at last that he has somewhere to belong and define himself, that Roger arrives.
Roger joins in January. He’s new to the area, manager at the Saab showroom, and although Sandy wants to be friendly he can’t help but think how typical it is that Roger would sell cars. How obvious that he would be in charge of it.
Roger trains a few times and doesn’t come to matches, but he showers with everyone after the first couple of sessions and it quickly becomes apparent that his penis is enormous. It’s impossible for Sandy not to see it, a humbling thing that overpowers the changing room. Not only that, but Roger’s ears haven’t cauliflowered. They haven’t grafted, been brushed hard and warped since they were thirteen years old, rubbed against hard cotton shorts, men’s wet heads and thighs as if they weren’t needed. As if the mutilation cost nothing.
Sandy shakes Roger’s hand when he arrives. Roger has a firm grip, as all rugby men do. As all men who know their place do. Everyone who is comfortable in their own skin or wants their peers to know how solid their character is has an outstanding handshake. Sandy frets constantly about his handshaking, but he would never, ever, tell anyone. He works hard to connect right and keep his palms dry, and he’s careful not to hold on for too long. He’s sure he has the bastard down pat now. He’s a trier and always has been, and prides himself on attending to social expectations seriously.
Another training session passes, followed by the customary drinks, and lo and behold Roger is funny. He’s actually, genuinely hilarious. That night, Roger makes a bad taste joke about orphans working in sweatshops and when, camouflaged within the circle of pint holding men, Sandy doesn’t laugh quickly enough, says, “What’s up, dude? You look like I’ve just pissed on your nan,” which causes Tom, Ossie and the others to roar their appreciation. All Sandy can do is say “No, ha ha,” and furtively rue the decision to keep his smudged glasses on, wishing with all his might that he’d kept the lenses in so he’d at least look as handsome as possible whilst he made a show of taking the joke in his stride. Sandy chuckles and sinks the rest of his beer and thinks, at least I can do that. At least I can drink a full pint quickly when I have to. Let them all see that.
Later still, February now, and Roger’s developed an even firmer build. Whereas it was initially doughy, with too much purchase around the waist, it’s now compacted in all areas and seems to glisten in the showers. Sandy has done well at hiding his curiosity and envy as time has dragged by and he ignores Roger as best he can, but it isn’t easy. Week in and week out he goes to training and bounces off that taut frame, then after the drunk drive home, enduring the curious metallic taste of blood in his mouth from chewing the inside of his cheek, arrives shambolically and heads not to his usual spot in front of the TV, but to the kitchen where he can be found staring deep into the light at the back of the fridge that he’s opened to fetch his dinner, in this case the last of the half-can of beans he put there the night before, seeing and feeling in the brightness a certain sense of displacement, a majestic coldness reflected.
Sandy looks at that fridge light calmly beaming at the back of the top shelf, and it becomes like the glow flashing between men’s legs in the scrum in summer in pre-season, only this light isn’t full of kinetic energy, it’s cold and it won’t budge. Sandy stares at this soft white texture and smiles, though he doesn’t feel it’s natural, for he’s consumed by warm thoughts of how things used to be, flashes of emotion that are interrupted by oblique visions of Roger, drying himself confidently in the changing room, his massive penis existing, taking over the world.
The season goes on, and Sandy accepts the rigour of it, welcomes it even. He knows that high standards should never be in flux, but he’s at a loss to describe the feeling of having the level you’ve held yourself to compromised, when you yourself are bettered. Because Roger has become first choice. He’s a very good prop, a loose head who fits snug in the crook of Tom’s reeking, muddy jersey. Sandy sits on the bench without complaint but he misses the beat of Tom’s heart, misses supporting him as he lashes at that leatherbound and grass speckled egg. Sandy has sat with Tom after training for years. They have drunk, they have laughed, they have confided and confessed and been friends. But Sandy is the man Terry made him so he sits back whilst Roger inserts himself beneath the crook of Tom’s arm like Sandy used to do, and takes it on the chin. Roger the showroom manager, flogging Saabs to millionaires. Sandy the administrator in an office, managing paper and stationery and enduring a callus on his wrist from where it lies flat against the desk every day, guiding his mouse along its plastic mat.
And so it goes for a while, training and the same few drinks before the drive through the fog that ends swaying at home with a gingery arm resting on the fridge door, staring deep into the light at the back. Sandy pays his dues and turns out each weekend for matches, but coach Brian likes Roger so Sandy remains on the bench. Still, Terry Flask didn’t raise a quitter – although he turned out to be one himself – so Sandy sticks it out. He sees himself as a kind of martyr, a quiet benevolent churl amongst lords and squires, real men, heroes who drink full pints and shake hands, laugh and touch and sing together. Sandy’s a Celt and a damn fine prop forward too, if only people would see it, but who can blame the blind when Roger is here, so smooth and firm and hilarious, so tall and with perfect hair, those sensitive brown eyes that don’t need help.
Who wouldn’t prefer Roger?
Sandy thinks of poor Terry whilst shivering in the cold of a Sunday, watching Roger crunch the opposition, hurl himself into mauls and tackles. He thinks of the father who ended up half a man, bashed practically in two by the car driven by that seventeen year old, dead soon after from the pills. Half cut once and for all. Maybe Terry wasn’t the trier he’d always painted himself to be.
Sandy puts in his Ciba Visions one day after a game. He hasn’t played, but they’ve beaten Farnborough so he’s pleased, delighted to have taken part if only to have been there on the day. Roger struts in the changing room and makes Tom and everyone laugh. He swings about naked, towel around his neck, and catches Sandy looking at him, the pair maintaining eye contact briefly, though neither acknowledges it, the two soon concentrating on pulling their clothes on and heading up to the bar.
In the clubhouse, the team wears ties and shoes and the banter runs thick as custard, gloopy chat, sweet, sickly and obvious bollocks that Sandy indulges in deeply for it’s the only team experience left that he can partake in as an equal. And there is a moment amidst this revelry, when Sandy catches Roger again as he speaks to offer an opinion that isn’t really his, Roger watching him, though again he says nothing. Sandy simply touches his nose, raises his lager to his lips and drinks, the bubbles in the amber liquid catching the sunlight through the prism of his pint glass, followed by the usual panicky smile offered to the men he regards as brothers.
The lads go on drinking. It was a cup game so it mattered. The beer tap flows and the froth tumbles easily into the pint glasses. A drunken Ossie sings a verse from ‘Dirty Ol’ Town’, and when Roger tells everyone that it was the best song that Shane McGowan ever wrote, Sandy goes to mention that it was a cover but he doesn’t quite dare, and there, at that moment, as the words don’t leave his mouth, is Roger gazing at Sandy once more. Sandy’s quite sure that his replacement knows something was held back and he wishes in this instance that he’d put his glasses on so he could take them off and polish them to distract matters, to puncture the moment, but the lenses are in and there’s nothing to be done except tighten his pink mouth pleasantly and hope that Roger will look away, which eventually he does.
Nothing. It was nothing.
Later still, and though it’s a Sunday, the team hasn’t cared enough to halt the beer. Sandy finds himself alone. A light shines, cold like the relentless shimmer at the back of the fridge, unknown like the glimmer through the legs of his teammates in the summer scrum. It flickers in half of the neon strip light that winter-tans the toilet, and Roger walks in to find Sandy at the urinal.
“Super sub,” says Roger, drunk. A drunk manager of a Saab showroom. So this is what they look like.
“At your service.”
“After a fashion,” says Sandy. Lonely, angry Sandy.
“You …you have something of mine,” tries Roger. Smooth, walnut dash Roger.
“Something I want.”
And with that half baked attempt at collusion, Roger lurches. He leans in and grabs Sandy by the shoulders, and Sandy holds his arms in return, but isn’t sure what’s going on. Roger goes to caress Sandy’s cauliflower ears, but in doing so hits Sandy’s eye and knocks out a lens. One-eyed Sandy can feel those manicured hands on his damaged little ears while Roger tries to land a kiss on his orange whiskered lips, lips that looked like Terry’s: “the very spit,” or so his mother once told him, adding with a grin, “no pun intended.”
And at that moment all Sandy can do as those full lips touch his, is think of his mother’s words, his mind wandering logically onto Terry, the poor father riven in two by that car, and the wheelchair months that followed, the life that grew so despondent. Terry Flask sundered, a half-man, a half-pint old loosehead like Sandy, reduced to a slip of almost nothing. That is what Sandy thinks of as Roger tries to kiss him. And following that punch to the heart, that feeling, Sandy recalls that day in April last year and the pills he fed to Terry at his behest, an overdose to finish the trying once and for all so the half-man could shut his eyes and be done with it all for good. And with that death thought, all Sandy does do is force his hand down his pants to push his excitement out of the way, and shove handsome Roger against the sink.
Sandy won’t speak as his glassy eyed replacement looks at him. He won’t say what he feels because he’s afraid of what might come out after. Instead he just goes to the place in his mind that he went to when he used to play before Roger came. To being covered by men in the mud, loaded with bodies, happy in the scud and the scuffle and the grass, and bolts for the door, leaving his pint on the bar, half of it, gets in his car and drives home. And at home, after the comfort of the easy sixty and those fog lights blazing true, Sandy opens the fridge and what he sees isn’t the place he once had in his home or in the team; it’s the captivating light, the truth that he can’t stop looking at and won’t ever tell anyone he’s enamoured with.