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U3A Writing: Scoreless

Poor Mark! A young man without a girlfriend. Then he meets the beautiful Maria, an enchanting Italian girl and they arrange a meeting. But there is a clash of dates. City have a vital Cup re-play game. What should football fan Mark do?

Patrick Hopton tells a suspensful tale.

Festooned with scarves of red and white, the coach sped westwards along the motorway.

‘CI-TY! CI-TY!’ yelled the occupants at the bemused faces in the cars easing past them.

Ever the introvert, Mark’s euphoria was silent, but his suppressed excitement was the equal of the noisy outpourings of his fellow passengers. ‘CI-TY! CI-TY!’ he exulted within, a stupefied smile the only overt sign of his exhilaration. Three goals in the last ten minutes to salvage a draw when all had seemed lost! And against Premier League opponents! He could hardly believe it. Nor could those smug, overpaid, so-called stars of theirs - or their cocky fans. Now a replay with home advantage beckoned, to secure a precious place in the semi-final. Then, perhaps . . . Wembley.

Three beautiful goals! It was fantastic. It was better than sex. At least Mark assumed it to be better than sex. He had never been given the chance to put his assumption to the test. Not for want of trying, mind you. From puberty, through his late school years, through university even (from which only the wretched few managed to graduate intacta) and now in the wide world outside, the story had been the same: his mates around him gathered women without difficulty and discarded them, while poor Mark could never get started. However friendly the girl initially, once he started his chat up routine somehow he scared her off. His words, warm and golden while inside him, emerged cold and wooden. He knew the nature of the problem. He was too tensed up - too eager. He needed to relax, to be content to wait for things to happen. But as the years went by nothing had. Desperation was beginning to set in and the problem becoming more acute.

But such regrets were not for today. This was a day when everything paled beside the marvellous happenings on that football pitch back in London: a day for celebration only. The City anthem had broken out about him. Inwardly Mark joined the raucous chorus.

Drink up thee zoi-der
Drink up thy zoi-der
For tonight we’ll merry be

* * *

‘Mind you’re in the queue first thing Monday morning,’ Ron warned him as the coach passengers disassembled. ‘They replay tickets’ll all be gone by ten.’

As if Mark didn’t know this! A good bloke, Ron, but not the brightest of mortals. The pair had been friends from their first day at infants’ school together, and through the primary and comprehensive schools that had followed; in that time attending countless City games together all around the country.

At the end of their school days they had gone their separate ways, Mark to further education, Ron to acquire the skills of plumbing. Now Ron, accomplished in a trade in much demand, flush with money, and with an apartment of his own, was driving about in a BMW, pulling and dumping girls at will. While Mark, without a job, saddled with a student loan that would be a millstone round his neck for years, and still living with his parents, had only the grudging use of their staid old Morris Minor 1000 in which to get around and was yet to find his first girlfriend. If he could achieve just that initial goal, the other would surely follow. Every guy had a girlfriend. Why not him?

At this precise moment, however, his lack of social success or sexual prowess was far from his mind. Three goals! And with a home replay coming up on Wednesday. Bloody fantastic!

He was still basking in euphoria as he let himself into the house. And there she was, a smiling, mini-skirted vision in the hallway: trim of figure, long slim legs, shining brown eyes, inviting lips of glossy pink, and raven black hair that swished around like in those shampoo ads on the telly. He stared at her, mouth agape.

‘There you are at last, Mark,’ his mother scolded. ‘We’ve been waiting for you to run Maria home.’

Minutes later he was negotiating the city centre in the Minor, trying to work out the longest feasible route to the affluent northern heights where Maria lived, at the same time fighting to keep his eyes on the road rather than feast them on those long legs stretched out beside him, and closing his mind to the soft thigh pressed deliciously against his in the cramped interior of the tiny car.

Above all women this beautiful stranger should have rendered him tongue-tied, yet he found that conversation with her came easily. She chatted happily about her life and questioned him about his.

She was Italian and had recently commenced a one year music course at the local university. It was to give a flute lesson to Mark’s young sister that she had visited his home.

‘Will you be coming again?’ he asked hopefully.

‘You like that, yes?’ she asked.

Careful, Mark! Not too eager, remember. He checked his enthusiasm, masking it with a flippant rejoinder. ‘I’ll certainly like it if you manage to teach Ruth to stop screeching.’

She coaxed the story of his life from him.

‘And you have a special girl, yes?’

‘No,’ he confessed miserably.

‘A big, handsome man like you! I do not believe it.’

Mark felt a glow of pride and a surge of daring. Now was the moment to ask her out for a date. How should he set about it? What might they have in common?

‘Do you like football?’ he asked hopefully. Rovers were playing at home tomorrow. Rovers were City’s local rivals, and the arch-enemy; but even they might serve their purpose in such a cause as this. And Ron need never know.

‘Football! There is no football in this town.’

Sacrilege! But so special was this girl she merited forgiveness. Patiently he listed out the virtues of City.

Maria was unimpressed. ‘Pah! Your City team, that is not real football. At home in Milano we have football - Internazionale, you know them?’

Naturally he knew them. Everyone knew Inter-Milan. Pampered prima donnas the lot of ‘em. Not one of that bunch would survive more than five minutes in the red-blooded lower divisions of the English game. Sensibly he declined to tell Maria so. Instead, nobly, he allowed her disparagement of his team to pass unchallenged.

Yet obviously he couldn’t ask her out to watch football. What then?

She solved the problem for him. ‘I have tickets for a concert tomorrow. You like to come with me? It is Beethoven. You like Beethoven?’

‘Great!’ he lied. Well, perhaps it was not altogether a lie. He was sure that in her company he would like Beethoven.

Minutes later he dropped her outside a tall house in a distinguished Regency terrace. She explained that her mother had taken it for the duration of the music course, to be at hand for and to keep an eye on her daughter in this wicked and dangerous foreign land.

Maria planted a quick kiss on his cheek as they said goodnight. ‘Two thirty tomorrow then, Marco. You do not mind if I call you Marco, do you? It suits you. At the Waterside Hall. Do you know it?’

Of course he knew the Waterside Hall. Only last week he had attended a Phil Collins concert there. He withheld the information. He felt it wouldn’t cut much ice with this wondrous creature.

He sang aloud as he drove home. ‘Maria! I just met a girl named Maria.’

Marco was in love.

* * *

The concert could have been worse. Afterwards they sauntered by the harbour side, hand in hand. She questioned him about his academic qualifications.

‘A combined degree in French, German, and Business Studies,’ he told her.

‘You find a good job with that, yes?’

‘Not much luck so far,’ he admitted gloomily. ‘There’s nothing on offer around here.’

‘You do not speak any Italian?’

‘Unfortunately, no. I can learn though,’ he added quickly. ‘I pick up languages easily.’

‘Really!’ was all she said in reply. But she looked thoughtful.

He walked her home, and met her equally beautiful mother.

‘Mama, this is my boyfriend,’ Maria introduced him, politely using English. ‘I call him Marco.’

Her boyfriend! She considered him to be her boyfriend! Stage one of Mark’s sexual ambition was attained at last. No, more than merely attained - the girl being so beautiful, his primary ambition was surpassed. Now for stage two.

He was granted a foretaste even before he left the house. In the hallway, as she showed him to the door, Maria pushed him against the wall. Thrusting her body firmly against his, her arms about his neck, she kissed him hungrily. ‘That is all for today,’ she apologised. ‘Mama she watches me like - how do you say it? . . . like a hawk. But on Wednesday she visits my aunt in London and is back late. You come here then, Marco, after my college, and we can have time here together . . . alone.’

Wednesday! The day of the replay! Oh cruelty! But, as intimated already, Marco was in love. Bravely he offered the ultimate sacrifice. ‘I’ll be here,’ he said.

* * *

On Monday morning Ron could not believe that Mark had been so stupid as to oversleep. ‘You’ll never get a ticket for the game now,’ he told him.

Ron was not to know that his friend had not overslept. He was not to know that he had been awake most of the night tossing in anguish, torn between his two conflicting loves; or how he had agonised at the thought of that queue of eager fans at the ground, waiting to snap up those precious tickets. Only by digging deep into his scanty reserves of fortitude had Marco resisted the nagging temptation to join them.

If Monday was torment, Tuesday was more painful yet, and Wednesday sheer torture. Despatched by his mother in the early evening to fetch his sister from Brownies, Mark had to force his way home through streams of chanting, cheering fans behatted and bescarved in red and white, all heading for the Mecca that was the City ground.

Home provided no respite. There he was assailed by the mental picture of a stadium gradually filling, abuzz with that special brand of eager anticipation that only a vital match against major opposition can generate. It was City’s biggest game in years and he would not be there to cheer them on. He felt like a deserter.

He visualised the scene in the dressing room below the stands: the exhortations of coaches and manager, the stamping of studded boots on concrete floors, the pungent smell of embrocation. These tantalising images he countered with cosy thoughts of whispered words on a sofa of soft leather, a closely fitting mini skirt riding up over black tights, the delicate, lingering fragrance of expensive perfume on silky skin. It was a struggle even so.

He was to be at her house at eight - thirty minutes after kick off. FORGET KICK OFF! He summoned his last dregs of willpower to dismiss the game from his mind once and for all. Thank goodness he didn’t have a ticket. The prospect that Maria was dangling before him promised to be far more rewarding.

The telephone rang.

* * *

Maria was humming an aria from La Traviata as she lit the candles on the table of the dining room. An appropriate musical choice really: in preparing to entertain her lover she felt akin to the worldly courtesan of the opera. After building up her credit as the dutiful convent girl for nineteen years, Maria was ready to cash in her chips. Moreover, she planned to do so in style, not in some hasty romp on the sofa; and with someone who deserved her. This tall, quiet English boy was the chosen one. With his hooded eyes of deep blue, his hesitant manner and a kiss that was heavy with suppressed desire, he had evoked a response in her that no suitor, however ardent, however handsome, had managed before. Yes, his sexual inexperience was obvious, but this merely enhanced his appeal. Having only recently broken free from the clutches of the good Sisters of the Blessed Virgin, she was inexperienced too, and equally full of suppressed desire. She and Marco would learn together.

Delicious aromas filtered through from the kitchen, where she was preparing a special Italian meal. They would linger over dinner. There was no need to hurry; Mama had telephoned to say that she would be detained in London overnight.

Their meal would be rounded off with a leisurely dessert, and a liqueur to follow - Amaretto she fancied. After a discreet interval she would excuse herself to slip upstairs and into something more comfortable - by which she meant the negligee of sheer silk already laid out on her bed - inviting Marco to follow a few minutes later. Then they would explore one another with love.

Only when all passion was spent would she reveal her final present to him. Back in Milano, dear Papa had not disappointed her. On his daughter’s recommendation he was prepared to engage her protégé as his agent for the leather-ware business, already widespread in Europe and with a foothold in London, that he was keen to expand into South-West England and South Wales.

That gift was reserved for later. First would come the passionate encounter in bed. Maria felt weak in anticipation. She sighed and drew the cork from a bottle of Chianti.

The telephone rang.

* * *

He was only ten minutes late. ‘What’s the score, mate?’ he demanded eagerly of his neighbour, as he settled himself in the seat that Ron, suddenly laid low with an injured back, had been unable to claim and had stoically offered to his friend.

* * *

Wretched, weak, misguided Marco. With his blind allegiance to his uncaring football team he blew the lot. He lost the chance finally to relinquish the burden of his virginity; he lost a rich, beautiful and loving girl; he lost the lucrative job that was his for the taking; he lost the Alfa Romeo that went with it.

Oh, yes. And City lost too.

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