Twenty-five years after the Hillsborough disaster, Grantham-born author Danny Rhodes’ latest novel Fan relives that tragic day through the eyes of Nottingham Forest fan John Finch. In this exclusive extract, set in 2004, Finch recalls the 1988 FA Cup quarter-final…
John Finch has returned to his hometown to attend the funeral service of an old mate, only to discover the bereaved girlfriend to be his own ex-partner. In this scene she reminds him of the impact of Hillsborough on their relationship, forcing him to consider his past actions and to reminisce about an FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury in March 1988…
‘I blame that day,’ she said. ‘I blame that day for everything that happened between us. You were happy before and miserable after. You were satisfied before and restless after. You were one person and then you were someone else. But I didn’t know Stimmo was there too. Nobody told me. He never told me. So I got it twice didn’t I. Once and then again. You and Stimmo. What are the chances?’
He sat there in silence. Truly found out. Truly exposed.
‘Kenny Dalglish,’ he said at last. ‘Three f***ing times.’
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
They fell into silence. The curtain twitched in the breeze. He thought about the street below, encroaching footsteps.
Eventually she asked him ‘What’s it like down there?’
‘The same,’ he said. ‘More expensive. The people aren’t so friendly . . .’
‘But you’re happy you went?’
‘It was fifteen years ago. I had to . . .’
She stared back at him.
‘I had to do something,’ he said. ‘Before it was too late.’
‘Because your life was so f***ing awful?’
‘Because I could see the next forty years in front of me, the lifers at the PO, intelligent blokes just going through the motions. I wanted more than what they had . . .’
‘And nothing. I’m not sure what they had was so bad, not now, but then . . .then I was certain . . .’
He put his tea down.
‘ . . .and frightened,’ he said. ‘Of what people wanted for us.’
‘My sister. My perfect f***ing sister.’ She spewed laughter at him. ‘So now you’re back . . .’
‘To sort some things,’ he said.
He could remember her now. Scenes were flooding back, the dam well and truly breached. He could see the uncertain seventeen-year-old, see her in the town pubs in the early days, him all stoked up with jealousy, terrified of losing what he’d discovered, and he could see her naked and unwanted in his bed eighteen months down the line, how she’d come to represent the very thing he needed to escape from, the town and everything in it, everything that had happened. He remembered the things he’d done to her in those desperate months when he didn’t have the f***ing decency to turn her away from his door, always inviting her in, throwing down crumbs of hope, making a f***ing mess. And here he was all these years later propped up in her bed, wondering once again how the f*** he was going to slide away, knowing it had to start with him getting his socks on and getting out of the bedroom, knowing there was that and then everything else to get through before he returned from whence he came . . .or crawled back under his f***ing stone.
He saw the woman she grew into before he left, how he’d aged her. And he saw her looking at him now, staring across the room at him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Everything,’ he said. ‘All of it.’
‘We’re all sorry,’ she said.
She followed him down the stairs to the front door. He stopped there, waiting to be shown out, not wanting it to look like he was running away again, the both of them clear that was exactly what he was doing, still terrified the door might burst open, that he’d be discovered there in his old mate’s house with his old mate’s girlfriend.
His old mate’s f***ing widow.
And then he was out of there, back in the light, staring across the old town at the grand old church spire, thinking of the hotel and a cooked breakfast, thinking of Kelly, thinking how long this whole f***ing charade might be set to go on for. Kids were making their way to school, the same uniforms, the boys in their black blazers heading one way, burdened with bags, urgent in their steps, the brown-jacketed others heading in the opposite direction, sauntering, hands in pockets, hardly a bag between them.
And never the twain shall meet . . .
Nothing changing in the old town.
And why the f*** should it have? It was fifteen years, the blink of an eye. Or it was half a lifetime. It was one of those things.
When he turned to look over his shoulder to see her still stood in the doorway in her dressing gown, her eyes red from crying, he knew he’d see her again before the mess was cleaned up. He couldn’t leave things half-baked with her again.
He just couldn’t.
FA Cup Quarter-Final
12th March 1988
ARSENAL 1 NOTTINGHAM FOREST 2
Monday lunchtime. The Cup draw on the radio.
Not Arsenal away. Not Arsenal away. Not f***ing Arsenal away.
‘Arsenal . . .will play . . .Nottingham Forest’.
You’re straight to a phone, making your plans.
A week later you take a train to the City Ground. You queue in the car park. You queue with the lads. You queue for hours. You hold the ticket in the palm of your hands. You kiss the ticket.
You are going to Highbury with eight thousand brothers.
And here you are, at Highbury in March.
The Clock End rammed with a solid f***ing mass of dreamers. Wilkinson rifles one in from 25 yards to ignite incandescent ecstasy and a dream becomes something tangible. The tricky trees are in full flow, soaking up pressure and springing from deep, caressing the football, keeping it on the turf. The beautiful, beautiful game. Clough Snr the master, Clough Jnr the apprentice with the vision of a seer, slipping Brian Rice in on goal. Brian Rice all on his own in the Arsenal half. Brian Rice bearing down on the Clock End, bearing down on the Arsenal goal.
Not Brian Rice. Not f***ing Brian Rice. Any f***er but Brian Rice.
The Sunday f***ing People –
Going, going, gone! Rice springs the Arsenal off-side trap, lifts the ball over Lukic and the Gunners are out of the cup.
Three photographs. Your fans erupting in stages behind the goal, grainy faces etched in anticipation, in wonder, in delirium.
The cult of Brian Rice is born.
Brian Rice, journeyman, born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, a Nottingham legend in his time. Robin Hood, eat your f***ing heart out. All together to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’:
Number One is Brian Rice, Number Two is Brian Rice, Number Three is Brian Rice . . .
Highbury in the rain. Drenched to the bone in the Clock End. Sambas soggy. Gooners not happy. Your coach pelted with bricks and mortar. Your coach attacked by a thousand angry fists.
Cocooned. Not giving a s**t. Face pressed against the window, aggravating the f***ers with w***er signs and middle f***ing fingers, not even flinching when the blows come at the glass.
Because you are there, at Highbury.
And you are on your way to an FA Cup Semi-Final.
Knackered. Sick to the stomach.
Guilty of nothing. Guilty of everything.
He slept for six hours, cocooned in the room with the windows that wouldn’t open, sunlight streaming in. The room too hot, robbed of air. Unable to breathe. His head pounding, his legs numb, his arms two dead weights.
Unable to breathe.
Unable to breathe.
The sound of screaming woke him, high-pitched, incessant screaming. He opened his eyes, sucked in a lungful of nothing. The phone in his room was ringing. It took him a moment to locate it, the phone on the dresser, out of reach. He dragged his forlorn body across the space, lifted the receiver, confused, uncertain, hardly with it.
His voice a dry croak, the taste of vodka still lingering, his stomach lurching.
‘Mr Finch. It’s reception. There’s a call for you?’
‘Shall I put it through?’
‘I suppose so . . .’ he said.
A click. A crackle. A voice he didn’t recognise.
‘Yes,’ he said, more alert now, imagining the f***ing police or something, thinking of Kelly, a tragic discovery, the f***ing madness of that evening.
But it wasn’t the police.
‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me good and clear?’
Hard-edged. Local. Threatening.
‘I can hear you,’ he said.
‘Stay away from Jen White, you sick-f***ing-c**t.’
The line went dead.
He sat up, his heart beating ten to the f***ing dozen, trying to rouse himself, to put voices to faces, not having a clue where to start. He felt the convulsions then, the bile in his throat, struggled to the bathroom, threw up in the toilet. On his knees in the old town, vomit on his lips, vomit in the toilet bowl, the bitter smell of vomit and vodka all around him. He vomited again, planted his forehead on the cold toilet bowl, ten thousand nails in his skull. Ten thousand nails and ten thousand hammers.
Guilty of nothing.
Guilty of everything.
Fan is available from Amazon for £8.39.