Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Wild (2)

The tube is already full to standing at Green Park as Wendy grabs tight hold of Mick's shirt sleeve for fear of separation. Above ground a light breeze provides some relief from the Summer heat of the day just gone. The Piccadilly line is impervious to such subtle climatic changes and will remain humid and oppressive into the night. As the train jerks to a halt at Russell Square Wendy reaches a hand out to steady herself against her brother's back and feels the sweat that has already soaked through his shirt. All around people are covered with a thin film of perspiration. With each step closer to their destination the carrage becomes ever more crowded and uncomfortable. And then, finally comes some relief. Like someone releasing a jammed pressure valve the doors open at Arsenal station and a never ending mass of humanity pours out onto the platform and towards the exit. Wendy renews her grip on Mick's arm as the crowd jostles its way into the cool breeze of the Summer's night.

A few moments pass and a second train follows close behind. If anything, this one is hotter, and more crowded than the first as it clatters into the station. A group of men in their late 40s push their way out onto the platform. Numbering seven in total they approach the climax of a day that has been spent sitting outside the Askew Arms in Shepherds Bush drinking and talking about the old days. As it always does on these occasions, conversation has focussed on how they'd first met on active service in Northern Ireland, men they'd served with in the Falklands, the danger they'd felt, the women they'd known and the officers they'd despised. It had been one of those afternoons when they'd all been on form, and each story told had been met with laughter, appreciation, and an attempt to go one better with the next.

Even after all those years they still knew each other better by their army nicknames than by the monickers given to them at birth. There was The German, Pieman, Bugsy, Keegan, Headlice and The Vicar. Then, at the back of the group was Monkeyman. Monkeyman was the quiet one, the dark horse, his nickname derived partly from a capacity to climb high trees, walls and fences (particularly when drunk), and partly from his appearance. Though not unattractive in appearance, there is, without doubt, something about him that suggests a primate.

The stream of people continues its unrelenting march to its destination in high spirits. Tattooed rooflayers swig beer from cans and sing songs, lovers hold hands and excited children pester their parents for sweets and ice cream. Wendy feels more relaxed now she can feel the air on her face and has released her grip on Mick's arm. After the nightmare of the last two years she's now ready for a new beginning or, at least, to have some fun. She can laugh as Mick teases her that he'll set her up with Ron the fat electrician from work if she can't find a new man.

"Who says I need your help finding men?" she retorts, "You never know, with all these blokes around maybe I'll find one tonight."

"I'd have thought you'd need all the help you could get at your age", comes the sibling-like response.

"D'you mind," Wendy comes back, "I'm three years younger than you you old codger, and I'm not short of admirers".

They laugh and chat and wind each other up as only siblings can and it's as if they're teenagers again.

Crossing the bridge to the Emirates stadium Pieman, Bugsy and company share their appreciation of the new home of Arsenal Football Club.

"Fuckin' hell, boys, would you look at that", says The German.

"Makes Highbury look like a right old shithole doesn't it", pipes up Bugsy.

"Remember that time we all got hammered before the Arsenal/Spurs game and Monkeyman ended up on top of one of the floodlights?" adds the Vicar, and they all laugh.

"Too right", says The German, "but you're a changed man aren't you now Monkster, since you quit the booze."

Monkeyman just shrugs and smiles, a twinkle forming in the corner of his eye at the memory of his wild younger days. He still enjoys the company of his old army mates. For one thing they're the only ones who've shared his experiences of Northern Ireland and the Falklands. In many ways meeting up with them once in a while is therapy. But he's also moved on. He's got a good job, bought a flat and after years of freewheeling along life's highway he's finally ready to settle down.

Inside, the stadium is beginning to fill up and the sound of 30,000 expectant conversations fills the air. The bars are doing a roaring trade in overpriced Fosters and John Smiths from plastic cups. The excitement in the air is palpable.

"What are you drinking, sis?" asks Mick.

"White wine and soda", comes the reply.

"You wait here while I go to the bar."

Mick disappears into a throng of people. Realising he'll be gone for sometime, Wendy takes the opportunity to freshen up and takes a trip to the ladies. By the time she returns the bar is still a mass of bodies but Mick is nowhere to be seen. She waits expecting his return, but one minute soon becomes five and she suddenly realises he's disappeared. Suddenly, she finds herself alone in a stadium full of strangers, panic rises in her throat and her eyes start to itch.

"You alright love?", asks a tall black man in a florescent orange tunic.

"I'm here with my brother", she replies, "and we've got separated."

"Don't you worry my darling, we'll soon sort that out, you come with me".

The steward leads Wendy through the stand and out towards the pitch. He mumbles a few barely discernible words into a walky-talky and within moments the stadium's PA system is blaring out the announcement,

"Would Mick Harper, a Mr Mick Harper please come to the front of the souvenir stand where your sister Wendy is waiting for you. That's Mick Harper, please come to the souvenir stand where Wendy is waiting for you."

The Steward leads Wendy to the allotted location and says,

"Here you go, love, just wait here. If he hasn't found you in the next five minutes we'll make another announcement. I'm sure you won't be waiting long."

To Wendy's right is man standing on his own. The first thing she notices are the arms. They're unusually long and hairy, as is the v-shaped section of chest visible beneath his open collar checked shirt.

At first, they just stand side-by-side, watching the crowds of people all around them. After five minutes of anxious waiting, Wendy turns to the stranger and enquires,

"Don't tell me you're lost too?"

"Yep", comes the reply, followed, without warning by the question, "that a monkey tattooed on your back?"

"Oh God, yes...", says Wendy, embarrassed, "I've had it years, since I was a teenager. The folly of youth."

"I quite like monkey's, actually", is the reply, "as it happens, that's what people call me, Monkeyman, but my name's really Martin."

Martin has lost contact with his group of mates as they'd piled into the bar and he'd kept his distance owing to his new-found sobriety.

As Wendy and Martin begin to strike up a conversation they're unaware of the growing excitement around them as the crowd catch a glimpse of the evening's main attraction making their way into the arena. At the end of the ground the enormous black screens that have been on standby burst into life. The crowd roars, as if in expectation of the football team that usually plies its trade in the stadium. Instead, a group of middle-aged men troop out onto the temporarily erected stage at the north-end of the ground. The last to arrive walks to the centre, and straps on an electric guitar prompting an even more ecstatic response from the crowd.

"Oh well, Wendy", says Martin, "looks like we've both been stood up for the night. Do you think, err, we could watch the show together? I haven't even asked, how long have you been a Springsteen fan?"

Her answer is lost beneath a swell of guitars and drums as the band launches into their first number. They exchange a smile, turn their eyes to the stage and for the night become characters in a Bruce Springsteen song.

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