The ball ricocheted off the fence and the fence wobbled, making a low rattling sound as Darren approached. He followed the path along the car park to the enclosed artificial pitch ahead. It was lit by high-voltage lights in either corner, almost making it look like day. In the light, Darren could see the boys kicking a couple of balls around the small pitch while they waited for Carl to set up. It was always the first thing they did: steal balls from the bag so they could shoot in the empty nets, or blast the balls at each other.
A smile crept across Darren’s face as he neared the clubhouse next to the pitch. It felt good to be back. He was certain that he was ready to re-join training, get the boys back on track. Carl had been giving him regular updates – he knew that they’d been losing form during his time away.
Seven boys stood on the pitch while Carl rushed around, setting up the drills he had planned. Extra lights flashed in wide arcs across the pitch and car park as parents tried to avoid being late. It wouldn’t matter, Carl was always slow.
Instead of heading for the gate to the pitch, Darren went into the small sitting area between the pitch and the clubhouse. It was closed normally and mainly used on weekend mornings for parents to watch their children and socialise, instead of watching from their cars.
Darren stood next to one of the three picnic benches that were bolted to the ground. He was expected back, but wouldn’t return to full duties tonight. It had been agreed that he would only assist, until he was ready to return properly. Tonight, he would stand by Carl, just watching. He hoped – he knew – nothing would plague him and he would be back to normal next week.
He approached the perimeter fence and stood, silently watching the players waiting for Carl. Four more players arrived and stole another ball from the bag. They ran off into a corner of the pitch to pass the ball. One immediately received the ball and turned to the nearest goal to shoot, missing the target and hitting the fence behind.
Darren’s eyes drifted to another group who stood laughing amongst themselves. A player running past them caught his attention. A ball at the player’s feet. He took small touches and dribbled towards a lonely goal near Darren. His was head down, focused on the ball.
Here, the green fencing morphed into old wood which cried out for a new lick of paint. Old ivy plants clung on for dear life. The lines on the pitch disappeared, the artificial grass turning into long, lush grass that needed a trim. The goals disappeared, bar one, which had shrunk in size. It was now less than a metre in length and could be folded away.
Darren shut his eyes. He was supposed to be past this.
He could feel his hands shaking. He took a deep breath to calm himself and take control of his emotions, as the therapist had told him to. He needed to control what his mind portrayed.
When he opened his eyes, the light was no longer artificial either. The player dribbling had shrunk, but still wore the same strip. The ball was tiny, and he had slowed, kicking the ball as hard as he could before running after it. It was slow progress. Finally, he reached the goal. The ball was half a metre away and he took his time before taking a long run up to hit it into the back of the net.
A woman cheered and hands clapped frantically.
‘Well done,’ the high-pitched voice said.
Darren’s eyes stung. He took another deep breath, trying to fight them back. It was no use.
His legs felt weak. His knees could no longer support his weight. He reached out a hand for support, but it was too late.
He sank to the floor and his hand finally reached the fence. A tear fell and exploded on the ground below. He bent double, groaning as he tried to stop the tears. He couldn’t. They just kept coming.
His breathing became sharp. His entire body was trembling now. He screwed his eyes shut. He needed to fight this. Dig deep inside, he remembered the therapist saying. That is the source.
He heard voices. He looked up. The players were looking across at him. Carl noticed they had stopped play, and looked over too.
Darren wiped his eyes and staggered to his feet. He didn’t want to embarrass himself anymore. He had failed. He thought he was ready, but he wasn’t.
He used the closest bench for support before pushing away, breaking into a run.
Kirsty had her lights on full beam as she turned into the car park. As she had expected, it was empty. Nobody would be within miles of them, she figured. It was a good, lonely spot to come to.
The car bounced over the potholes. Kirsty wasn’t bothered about being thrown around inside, she scanned the areas her lights illuminated. If he had come anywhere, it would be here. It had been their favourite place to walk, a long time ago, a time which now felt like a distant memory or a dream.
Her lights passed over a wooden bench on the other side of the car park. Sure enough, a figure was hunched over, head in hands. She knew it was him, recognising the club badge on his jacket.
She jerked the car to a stop and climbed out, leaving the door open and the engine running. She jogged across the car park, using the light to dodge the potholes.
She could hear him sobbing as she approached. The sound of her footsteps caught his attention. He looked up at her with pink, puffy eyes. She could see the shine down his cheeks like snail trails where tears had dried. He said nothing. He just watched her.
‘Carl called me,’ she said. ‘He told me you ran off. I reckoned you’d be here.’
Darren said nothing. His head followed her until she knelt in front of him. He still said nothing. He just stared at her with sad puppy eyes.
Kirsty took his hand. It was freezing. She took his other hand and clasped them between her own and tried to warm them up as best she could.
‘What are you doing out here?’ she asked. ‘It’s freezing.’
He looked at her with a glum expression, his eyes dropped. ‘I saw him again,’ he croaked.
Kirsty felt anger boiling up inside of her. They had shared the same problems. Why did he keep her in the dark?
She took a moment to compose herself and cleared her throat. ‘Why are you keeping me at a distance?’ she asked.
He didn’t respond. He only stared at her.
She felt her eyes water. She wasn’t sure if they were tears of sorrow or frustration. It had been going on for too long. She couldn’t contain it anymore. ‘You – we can’t keep this going anymore,’ she sobbed. ‘Please, give me something. It’s killing me.’
Darren didn’t speak. He slipped his hands from hers. He sandwiched her hands between his own and held them. She watched him stare at their hands for a long minute.
He looked up at her, a tear rolling from his eye. ‘It’s killing me too,’ he said.
Kirsty sniffed and managed a small smile. Was he finally opening up? He had shut her out for months. It was getting to the point that she didn’t recognise him anymore. He was no longer the man she had married all those years ago.
‘I miss… I miss playing with him,’ Darren said, ‘in the garden.’
Kirsty was momentarily blinded by a new flood of tears. ‘I know,’ she replied. ‘I do too.’
She remembered the summer afternoons when they would play in the garden for hours. He always had a ball at his feet. He never stopped playing football. All he wanted to do, all day long, was play. When Darren brought a kit home for him to wear, he’d never taken it off. She had only been able to wash it when he was asleep.
‘I don’t want to go on like this anymore,’ Kirsty said. ‘I don’t want to keep talking to myself.’
She looked up to the starry night sky above. She closed her eyes and whispered a small prayer. She was sick of staring up at the ceiling at home and waiting for him to talk to her. She just wanted him to shed a light on her. She didn’t like being alone in the darkness.
She met his gaze. She could see the tears welling again, he could only hold them back for so long.‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
She leaned forwards and kissed him on the cheek. She wrapped her arms around him, holding his head close to her chest. She felt her shirt dampen and sniffed to fight back her own tears.
‘Please,’ she whispered out into the darkness.
Darren pulled away from her.
‘Please can we go home,’ she said, ‘together?’
Darren wiped his eyes and nodded.
Kirsty released a sigh as they embraced, holding each other tight in the car’s headlights. Had she finally broken down his walls? She hoped so. She knew it would take a while for him to open his heart fully. Now that they were making progress, she was prepared to wait.
After a long minute, they climbed to their feet. They interlocked hands and walked back to the car, while shielding their eyes from the blinding light so they could see the potholes around their feet.