Like all classics, Pete had endured a decade of derision before reaching ironic vintage status. For now, he was having to make the best of a new job in the lower leagues, the ones with numbers not sponsors. At least they hadn’t had to move. If anything the training ground was a little nearer. She loved that bloody house.
‘Goalhangers’ stood on the corner of Laburnum Avenue. It had a red door and creosote mock Tudor timbers. In the front room window and beside the boot scraper, were examples of his wife’s art. She made sculptures that looked like curly dog turds.
“My inspiration comes from nature,” she’d say.
“From a dog’s arse,” Pete, would mutter after a few nips from his desk drawer bottle. But then he was only talking to the team photos on the plaster board wall of his new office. Tiny it was. The last gaffer had been a whippet of a man. Marathon runner, fitness freak. Pete had to squeeze between the wall and the side of the desk to get to his chair. Players had to be athletes, managers sat and thought. Even managers of teams of midlands, mid-table cloggers. He’d had a lovely office at United. Wall paper, drinks cabinet, enough room to entertain. He loved that side of the game. The after match meet with his opposite number. They were a rare breed, football managers. Especially the old guard. These new boys, some of them hadn’t even played. How could they understand the pressures of the game?
Pete liked to think he could’ve survived another five seasons at United and made it safely to retirement, his status intact. After all they’d only just missed out through penalties in the play-offs. But no, the board had listened to that property developer bastard of a chairman and called for new blood. Someone with continental ideas. Everyone wants to be bloody Barcelona. One day he’d get the credit he deserved. Oh they’d be sorry then, when it was too late. Like Blackburn with Big Sam.
His marriage had been the only constant throughout his career. He’d not had a lot of girlfriends before Janet. Truth was, being a centre back for Southampton in the sixties wasn’t the chick magnet it was today. And he was shy around women.
He’d been introduced to her by the old physio’. She was a friend of his daughter’s. Went to art college together. Well, he hadn’t known what to expect, but Janet was fine. Not good looking in an obvious way but fine, and quiet. She showed him her drawings after a couple of dates. Leaves and acorns he remembered. Lots of still lives, all very pale and delicate. She wanted to be a sculptor. When she fell pregnant in their first year of marriage, talk about that stopped. And anyway, he was transferred to Albion, the big time. First of their eleven moves, his playing career ending up in Stenhousemuir. God that was a low point. Then into coaching. Scottish leagues again before his assistant job with Malcolm. Only took two more jobs to get United. She’d never complained. Not really, just the usual moans about the kid’s schools and decorating.
They had three children. All girls, then they’d given up. Becky was already married, Paige was finishing teacher training in Chichester. Only Lottie was left. Halfway through her BTEC at the local college. When she’d told them she wanted to specialise in PE, that’s when the arguments had really begun. He could see that now. Janet was convinced their youngest was truly creative and would regret it later.
It was the subject of many late night discussions. Held in that rabid register halfway between whispering and spitting, when they didn’t want their daughter to hear them through the bedroom wall. When their emotions ran high and sentences rushed to emphatic conclusions with bulging eyes and clenched teeth.
“Why don’t you just let her choose what she wants?”
“I’m her mother. I know she has the artistic spark.”
“How? She hated art at school.”
“That’s because they don’t give them the freedom to express themselves at GCSE. It was the same for me.”
“I don’t see Becky doing anything with her artistic gift and you said the same about her.”
“That is uncalled for Peter! Rebecca is putting her creative urges into starting a family. It will emerge later. Just like it did for me.”
But these exchanges belonged to the time when they’d shared a bedroom. Now that Lottie was well past any last ditch alterations to her subject choice, Janet had decamped to Becky’s old room. Their marriage had entered a new phase. Janet told him she needed to conserve all her positive energy for her work. That, after all these fallow years, ‘it’ was just bubbling up and ready to burst inside her. Peter’s attention was a distraction she could not afford. And when the work came to fruition he would see it was worth it.
In the meantime, Janet was getting all the physical expression she needed from Pilates. She’d found this wonderful class at the Spa just when she needed it. Wasn’t it funny how everything fell into place when you knew what you wanted? Janet worked hard at maintaining her ‘S’ shape and she knew everyone noticed how poised, how much more energetic she now looked. She’d found this wonderful catalogue too, of ethnic clothing from Norway. Such beautiful fabrics and colours. Very distinctive, no one else she knew had even heard of Orjan Birger.
Pete thought the new clothes were far too expensive for his wife to end up looking like an East European peasant. He thanked god she didn’t attend match days like she did in the old days. He’d be a laughing stock. If only he’d gone to Lottie’s last parent’s evening.
Janet had come back in an exultant mood. Wafting into the kitchen from the garage in a cloud of that awful perfume she’d taken to using. It stung his eyes.
“I’ve volunteered to be a visiting artist,” she declared, thwacking her leather and raffia bag onto the kitchen table where Pete was enjoying a late-night bacon butty.
“What’s that love?”
“I went to ask if it really was too late for Lottie to switch courses and they sent me to see the head of art.” She stood with her hands on the back of a chair beaming. “He was resistant to the idea at first, but when I told him I was an artist too he became quite chatty. Ended up asking me if I wanted to be a guest speaker. He’s under all sorts of pressure to meet targets for, what did he call it? Ah yes, academic enrichment.”
Pete looked at her with concern. Her cheeks were flushed and she was shifting from foot to foot like a child who needed the toilet. He said, “Are you sure that’s a good idea Jan?”
“It’s too late for Lottie this year. But maybe next. If she does a third year, she could drop the PE and do the whole art course from scratch. And if the lecture goes well, I could do some part-time teaching next year too.”
“How does Lottie feel about this?”
“Oh, she doesn’t know yet. But she’ll come ‘round. After I establish myself in the department, she’ll see. Oh Peter, how wonderful. I didn’t know it before, but teaching art is what I’ve always wanted to do. And now I have had my breakthrough, I have so much to give.”
“Steady on love, just what have you gotten yourself into?”
Janet danced towards the dining room door, the embroidered felt skirt she was wearing swayed heavily, causing the row of little bells on its hem to tinkle.
“Visiting artist,” she trilled from the doorway. Next Wednesday afternoon, I shall give a presentation to the students, as a visiting artist.”
He hardly saw over the next few days. They had a midweek home tie against Portsmouth in the cup, if Pompey could field a team. No joking apart, they’d be tough opponents and Pete had been drilling the defence on the subtleties of the off-side trap. Always start with how to earn a clean sheet, then dead ball plays and finally goals from open play. Competitive football, it wasn’t rocket science. In many ways the change to three points for a win had spoiled the game. Taken the pleasure out of nullifying your opponent. Revie’s Leeds, now that was a golden age. Anyway apart from bumping into her in the bathroom, Janet had been a ghost in their house.
Tuesday evening she emerged. Desperate that he watch her practice presentation.
“I’ve got a very important game tomorrow love...”
“So have I Peter. Only for me it isn’t a game. This is one of those life-changing events. It has to be perfect. Oh Peter please, let me rehearse in front of you, Lottie won’t help and I so wanted the student’s perspective. Peter, it’s important.”
“All right love. Will it take long?”
“I just want a fraction of the support I’ve given you over the years.”
“My job’s been our bread and butter all these years. It’s brought up three children. Pays for this house.”
“There’s more to life than money Peter. This is about art. But if you won’t help...”
“I said I would didn’t I? Come on, where do you want me?”
He sat on a hard chair in the dining room with instructions to tap the mouse on the laptop whenever she waved her notes at him.
“We haven’t got a projector so you will have to change slides on my PowerPoint when I give the signal. Of course, I’ll have sample pieces to show as well, but this way they can see my whole process. From inspiration to sketches and final work. Click the mouse Peter, I’ve started.”
And so it went on. Janet ran through the whole thing twice. Most of the first time, she’d got flustered and mixed up her notes. Or Pete wasn’t concentrating. In the end he didn’t know what he’d witnessed. Lot of waffle about organic forms and holistic technique. The pictures were all right. Well they were mostly in focus. What did Pete know about art anyway. Jokers had been getting away with worse for years. That bloke who put a dead shark in a tank. He was a millionaire.
Pete had a sneaky hope that Jan would give Becky’s room a miss tonight. Burn off a little anxiety. But she was of a mind that it was her cup final tomorrow and she was in training.
“Maybe Thursday?” she said. Then she smiled slyly, “We should have something to celebrate.”
“Getting through to the next round you mean?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
They drew nil-nil with Portsmouth. Not a disaster by any means considering they’d had two players sent off. The crowd had got a bit uppity, but Roma wasn’t built in a day. Pete preferred away games anyway. The tactics suited his game plan.
Being a late kick-off meant he didn’t get home until after eleven. There was a light in the front room. When he went in she was sitting in the middle of the floor, heaps of crumpled papers around her, her handbag emptied onto the couch.
“What’s the matter love?”
“They hated me,” she muttered in a voice cracked from weeping. “I was a little ruffled to start with, that’s only natural isn’t it? But they started sniggering the moment I went into the classroom.”
“Well surely the teacher kept order?”
“He joined in,” she squeaked. “In the end there was a question and answer session and he called my work, ill-considered and undeveloped.”
“But he’s right Pete,” she cried. “It is. I saw the student’s work. Kids of sixteen. Their drawing’s already better than mine, and they know the names of all the artists.”
“You’re a lovely drawer.”
“Terry Moore, I said Terry Moore not Henry Moore.”
“Terry Moore played right back with me at Southampton love, he was our best man.”
“I know,” she wailed. “Oh Pete, I’m not an artist at all. I’ve been kidding myself. I’m just a football manager’s wife.”
Pete kneeled down beside his wife and put an arm around her shoulders. “Now you listen to me. You’re not just a football manager’s wife. You are the best wife any man could ever want. And a damn good artist to boot.”
“I’m not,” she whimpered.
“You’ve just had a little set back. It’ll all look different tomorrow. Pundits don’t know nothing. It’s easy to criticise, harder to build.”
“Oh Pete, Lottie’s friends will all know her mother’s a crank. Everybody will laugh at me.”
“They’d better not try.”
“I’ve taken my sculptures in from the garden. People must have been laughing at me all this time.” She pressed her wet face into his chest and sobbed. In between the gasps she squeezed out, “I don’t know if I can go outside the door ever again.”
The next day he put out some feelers. Football was a small world and Pete still had friends who valued his classic approach. There was a job going as assistant coach in Glasgow. The club there was going through a bit of turmoil but it truly was too big to fail. In many ways it was a promotion. They wouldn’t stand in his way here. The captain was taking his badges and Pete knew he’d been angling for the position of player/manager before he arrived. They’d save money.
Janet had been good as gold about the move, even offered Lottie her car as a sweetener. She’d have to move colleges but she was like him, happy in the company of sports people. There’d be new teams to join, she’d be fine. And Janet could put all that silly business behind her. Sometimes when you were on a losing streak a change of direction seems like a good idea. But it doesn’t last. The trick was to keep the faith. Continue with the tried and tested methods. In the long run, people would see you were right.