“Some people belong in school.” The former sports star grinned annoyingly as he stood at the bar with his upper body wrapped in a pink shirt, the collar raised. His hair looked every hour that had passed since it was wet-combed, and his fingertips were all yellow from smoking. A cheap tattoo struggled to make its banal point over the acne scars on his neck. The former sports star laughed and spoke loudly with his two broad-shouldered buddies, who were both Neanderthals and wore similar clothes. They pushed each other around playfully, spilling beer from the branded glasses they were holding, onto a floor peppered with their smudged footprints. Their shadows danced across the TV screen on the wall. It was noon. Long rectangles of sunlight moved gradually north-west across the bar’s open-brick interior, as a man with a soul patch read a newspaper and a young couple ate brunch. A barmaid made a coffee machine hiss and splutter. Sting played on the radio.
The former star didn’t like it when his two buddies left him. He found himself drinking faster while he waited for them to return. The vermillion red of the former sports star’s flushed face appeared at odds with eyes still wild from the previous night’s chemicals. Beads of sweat made his temples shine. It was winter and the radiators had been going all day. He felt the couple eating brunch looking his way, and wondered whether his posture was questionable. After pretending to admire the generic canvas prints lining the walls, his gaze fell inevitably on the TV screen, which was showing football. It showed little else.
Between the ages of 11 and about 18, the former sports star played football at every competitive junior level. He’d captained teams in tournament finals, scored important goals, made rousing half-time speeches, and got pretty close to the summit of what a young footballer could achieve. Throughout the transcendental highs and lows, and the pervasive, harassing pressure from his coaches, the whole sporting experience had conditioned him to believe that the only ability absolutely necessary in a person was the ability to deal effectively with abuse and criticism. This explained why he’d picked on weaker kids back in school. It wasn’t about demonstrating his authority – it was about encouraging them to stand up for themselves, and he became offended when people like Stone wouldn’t. He did stuff to Stone that neither of them told anyone about, for opposite reasons.
Even in his best years, there were times when the former sports star would be sat in Geography, looking out over the dark trees, the wind and the rain, despairing as he remembered that he had morning practice in an hour. His life changed when he met Kate. With every confidence he was doing the right thing, he sacrificed the seven years of training and a more-or-less guaranteed career for that long, perfect summer when neither of them had any worries in the world. They became each other’s first times. They made plans for the future. She went to university and got into books, while he got a job and saved. He went to visit her a couple months later, when she’d started calling herself Rice. When she kissed differently. When it was all over. He blamed her for changing, and himself for not. It was around then that he began needing a strong drink after every shift at work.
The former sports star watched the TV screen with a clenched jaw. His two buddies were unconscious upstairs. The couple eating brunch were still looking at him.
“Some people just belong in school…” Stone said again to Rice, wiping his mouth with a napkin.