THE COACH DEPARTS
It was his idea, twenty-five years ago, to locate the football field down by the river. The difficulty, you see, was the number of hills. Here in Gwynedd, where Snowdonia’s on your back protecting you, supporting you, closing you in, where the mountains tumble to the sea and the sea rushes at the shore… here there’s nowhere flat and sensible for a football pitch.
One day, walking in the woods with Bronwen, their ankles brushed by anemones as if by spring snowfall, he had his revelation. Somewhere in his mind lurked the idea that this might be the perfect place to propose to Bronwen. As they stood together by the roaring river, he placed an arm round her waist, drawing her to him, as if to protect her from falling into the flood. He wanted to tell her he loved her, but the cry of the river, he feared, would drown him out.
He was too shy to look into her eyes, though he felt hers pulling him in. Instead, he cast his glance across the river, and that’s when he saw it: the perfect football field. Immediately, the call of the water receded, and, in his mind, he could hear the shouts of young boys. If he half-closed his eyes, he could almost see them there, on the other side, in their blue kit. Or red, maybe.
So it was that he never married Bronwen, but the Llanystumdwy Colts were born. He became a stalwart of the community, coaching the Tuesday after-school football club, every week, every year. He was loved by all – but he was always alone. The football field he’d founded gave his life its meaning, and gave it also its unbreachable boundaries.
One grey afternoon in April, as the cries of the boys rang in his ears, the river still orchestrating its overstated harmony, he had his second moment of revelation in that place. David Griffiths had twisted his ankle, and his coach was kneeling by him administering first aid. Holding the boy’s warm calf in his, he looked up to see a figure standing on the other side of the river, the woodland side where, all those years ago, he had almost asked Bronwen to marry him. It was spring, and the strange man’s feet were hidden by the snow of anemones. He wore a long grey tunic and, slightly darker, a cape over his shoulders; his age was hard to determine; his height he guessed to be nearly six and a half foot; still he stood. His scarcely-defined face seemed to be looking straight into the coach’s.
‘Hey! Watch it!’
‘Hurry up, Dylan! Go on, get it!’
A boy plunged past him, red kit a flicker of fire over the grass. The coach sprang up, David Griffiths’ ankle forgotten. Dylan had reached the edge of the river.
The moment he was at Dylan’s side, he saw why they were shouting. The football was already beyond rescue. Together, they watched it bob away from the little eddies at the edge of the river and enter the flood. Three seconds later it was already at a bend in the river, swept along by the fast-flowing froth. The total lack of control over its own destiny didn’t seem to worry the football. It just carried on travelling into the unknown.
He watched it disappear. Then he turned back to the Llanystumdwy Colts, who were still groaning at their loss.
‘That’s enough! Gareth… Get the other ball out of that bag.’
That evening, the coach left Llanystumdwy.
Tall buildings hemmed him in. They were dark and straight, leaving him no room to breathe. It was as if the mountains had released their giants, who stood encircling him in this alien place.
First, he had to shed the Welsh. Even when his English had become reasonably fluent, Londoners still couldn’t understand what he said. Or, he sometimes suspected, they pretended not to understand. He had to travel miles to find green fields. Parks (there were plenty of those) didn’t count. Spotting a notice pinned up in his local library asking for volunteer football coaches, he copied down the number to ring. As usual, the voice at the other end of the line kept saying, ‘What’s that? Sorry – could you please repeat what you’ve just said?’ It turned out that he needed to go through something called a CRB check, and he didn’t like the sound of that. So he gave up on the idea of coaching London lads.
Every day his astonishment increased – that he could live in a city where he was never more than a few feet away from someone else, and yet still feel so isolated, so alone. It came as no surprise when, one night in early April, the six-and-a-half foot man in the tunic and cape stood before him in a dream, a churning river between them, and kept quite still, perfectly silent.
He hadn’t needed to say anything. At daybreak the coach packed his bag and returned to Llanystumdwy. As he stepped out onto the familiar station platform in Criccieth, he stood aside to let a middle-aged woman get onto the train. He barely recognised her, half-consciously taking in the beige raincoat that strained across large breasts and hips. He made his way to the unmanned ticket barrier, but then something made him turn back. The woman had turned round also. She’d mounted one step onto the train but stood there now perfectly still, apart from the olive green scarf which the wind strained to pull from her neck. And his mind travelled back more than twenty-five years, and he heard the roaring river. Bronwen was looking at him now in exactly the same way. He paused, one hand on the barrier gate, motionless like her. Then the whistle blew. She raised her hand and, for a second, he thought she might wave him good-bye. But she simply clutched the errant scarf to her throat and entered the train.
He watched it pull out of the station, then, tackling his backpack into just the right place between his shoulders, headed for home.