It is a lovely day in Devon and you have a horrible bus that has broken down, which negates, really, any loveliness to speak of.
The sun is out and the midday frost is crisp and the Terrors are milling about outside the bus, technically more of a long van, stuffing hands in pockets and amusing themselves with breath circles. Francis kicks the wheel with a steely determination that on merit alone ought to have started the engine. The engine does not appreciate the concept of anyone deserving anything. Francis picks up the phone Thomas (Jopson) offers him and yells at the AA for a bit, but the AA is also unappreciative and tells him that they won't be able to pick them up for another two hours at least because of the snow build-up in parts of the country.
"Another two hours?" Francis barks, in a tone that would have gotten him sent off had he used it with a referee on the pitch. "We need to be in sodding Swindon by then. Swindon! If we aren't there on time I'll call your manager and you'll be sacked before you can say maybe I should have picked those chaps up - "
They're exactly the same distance from Swindon at the end of the call as at the beginning.
"There is an alternative, captain," Edward ventures with all the enthusiasm of a small child being forced to spell feuilleton.
At this point Francis is willing to hear anything short of alien abduction. "What is it?"
Edward points down the road. "That."
Henry starts to smile; Thomas (Blanky) howls a laugh; Thomas (Jopson) glances worriedly at Francis; and Francis says "oh, no. No, no, no."
James Fitzjames sticks his head out of the window and grins at them. "Having trouble, lads?"
Here's the situation:
Terror Football Club are playing Swindon Waiting Room (SWR) FC in Swindon in four hours, which means they had to be there four hours ago. Thanks to some kind of miscommunication on Edward's part, which of course no one blames him for, the bus that has broken down also arrived a day late, compounding misery like interest.
Erebus Athletic are playing Woodley Saints Hobnob in Reading tomorrow, their bus having been organised by Goodsir who is rather on the ball (despite not kicking it). That means that they've loads of time to spare for losels and lollygaggers - particularly ones heading to Swindon, which falls neatly on the way to Reading.
Francis Crozier really doesn't want to have to take James Fitzjames's bus. Really, really doesn't want to. He's still smarting over the Hand of Franklin, which is possibly the greatest injustice done to any football team since Lampard's goal in 2010. Unfortunately, Terror Football Club have no money to speak of to call seven different cabs and, anyway, it's two years too early for Uber in Devon.
To use a word only George Hodgson would ever actually have said in daily life: ergo.
"We'll call another bus for the trip back," says Edward. "Promise. Please talk to me."
They're well past Exeter now and Edward hasn't stopped apologising, nor has Francis stopped shaking from a quiet kind of rage that has corked his throat and threatens to uncork every time he hears Fitzjames's voice. Which is plenty often, considering Fitzjames has decided to park himself right across the aisle.
"Pints, lads?" the mop of hair is now saying, with a flippance not usually attributed to people who need to get to a specific location in three hours or perish.
"We do not have time for pints," Francis says through gritted teeth.
The driver is already pulling off the M5 into some dodgy little suburb of Wellington. Thomas (Blanky) leans over the seat and taps Francis on the shoulder.
"They're stopping anyway."
Now Francis has never been one to turn down a drink, and he feels his resolve waver ever so slightly at the sight of the shoddy pub they're pulling up in front of. But they're playing in two hours and he'll be damned if he's going to let any of his starting eleven get onto a pitch sloshed.
Le Vesconte begins shepherding the Erebus boys towards what he calls a benjo, wherever he picked that up from, and Fitzjames stops by Francis's seat looking like he's going to say something. What you might call a look of strong advice from Edward stops any words from coming out of the Erebus vice-captain's mouth.
"I suppose if you aren't starting," Francis says wearily, because he is starting.
"I'll stove Fitzjames's head in if we don't leave in fifteen minutes," Thomas (Blanky) promises, and clunks noisily off the bus.
Silence. Francis closes his eyes. Thomas (Jopson) whispers in his ear: "Edward's done a count, captain. All but ten."
Which is the right number he needs, so Francis keeps his eyes closed and lists, very slowly, the elements of the periodic table until he hears the clump of feet starting up the steps again, considerably less rhythmic than before.
The Chuckle Brothers are scrambling to a window and a sudden Very Bad Feeling About This runs through Francis.
"Hey, driver, slow down a sec!"
And even before the bus has gone below ten miles an hour Le Vesconte has leapt clean out of the bus into the trees off the side of the road.
"Jaysu - " Francis starts, before remembering that John (Irving) is sitting directly behind him. "- mm. Jaysum. Isn't that a rapper?"
"Jay-Z," Thomas (Hartnell) supplies helpfully.
"It's a cheetah," Le Vesconte yells, rushing back on board, a live creature cradled in his arms.
"I'm allergic," Hodgson protests.
"Keep driving," Thomas (Blanky) roars at the driver.
Francis isn't going to get a wink of sleep for the next three days.
It takes a while for them to establish that the stray is not, in fact, a cheetah, rather just a cat that looks very much like one. From the discussion you'd think it was some sort of prime ministerial debate and not merely whether domestic cats could have spots or not. (They can; Francis had previously written a piece about Bengal cats for Nature, but it's far more satisfying to watch Fitzjames dig a hole for himself.)
They place the ex-cheetah onto the front seat where it regards them with the disdain so perfected by members of its species.
"Let's call him Buttery Paul," says Le Vesconte through a mouthful of dubious-looking energy bar.
"What the fuck," says Edward, but very quietly so that everyone can pretend not to have heard him.
"He's got a name tag," Stanley points out, which does not bode well for anyone on the bus hoping to keep an immaculate police record. Fitzjames bends over to read the lettering on the golden disc around the ex-cheetah's neck.
Fagin yawns lazily at them.
"I liked Buttery Paul better," Edward says.
A little bit of history, since the Terrors and Erebites haven't always been at loggerheads and since there's nothing to look at on the road except Taunton's Holiday Inn. Certainly the ignominy of sharing a ground was not an ignominy when James (Clark Ross) was still Erebus's captain; those had been good days, each club turning out for the other, no graffiti scrawled on locker room walls, handshakes (and other hand-things) in the tunnel all manner of friendly.
And then 2013/14 happened. For one, David Moyes. For another, James retiring, almost all of the old gang leaving for pastures of differing greenness, only Francis left to hold the fort. He should've taken the hint and tendered his resignation then. Instead he'd sat through Erebus signing first Sir John, who Conflict of Interest Declaration aside had so mismanaged Tasmanian Flooring FC that he ought never to have gotten another job again, and then Fitzjames, basically a square-headed matchstick who claimed to like magnets more than Francis did.
No one likes magnets more than Francis does.
Cue the slow and steady breakdown of order; derbies living up to the newspapers' sensationalising; a kind of darkness (smacking Sir John's head with his do not step on the grass signboard); culminating in a perfectly legitimate foul on Fitzjames that is still, for reasons Francis cannot fathom, being complained about.
The matchstick glances over at Francis. Francis stares back, a muscle in his jaw jumping, until Fitzjames wavers and turns to give Fagin a pat instead.
Francis pulls out his phone and texts James. I'm no in the mood for this mate tbh stuck on an Ere-bus is fuckin lonely
James leaves him blue-ticked, which has been his default response to any whinging about Sir John or Erebus because of a misplaced sense of courtesy for that One Time the Franklins had them to dinner (you could see why they'd never be featured on Come Dine With Me ). Or maybe it was because of the pun. Francis reads it again and considers blue-ticking himself.
Eighty more minutes. That's basically less than one football game. Francis can survive for just one football game, provided there isn't extra time or Mourinho-timed substitutions. Thomas (Blanky) besides him has fallen asleep and is snoring obnoxiously.
Seventy-two. It isn't sleeting and the scenery from the M5 has become surprisingly pretty; they're coming to the Mendip Hills now, and limestone is all the more beautiful when no one from Erebus Athletic has anything to say about it.
Sixty-five. Francis settles back into his seat and pulls out his teamsheet for the game to go over again. They might even make it on time, which would certainly be a pleasant surprise for SWR. For now: peace and quiet.
"Captain," John (Irving) mutters furiously, tapping him on the shoulder, "I thought it my duty to inform you that our centre-back is fraternising with our rival goalkeeper and while I've no problem with that sort of thing, they're being very obvious about it - "
Sixty minutes. The handwritten IF YOU ARE GOING TO FRATERNISE DO NOT DO IT WITHIN SIGHT OF JOHN IRVING!!!!!!!!!!! sign pasted to the front of the bus seems to be working, although the driver swears every thirty seconds when he thinks yet another A4-sized car is racing towards them.
Francis, who's managed against all odds to doze off, is jolted rudely awake by the bus screeching to a halt. "Are we here yet?" he says in a fog of grogginess, and Thomas (Blanky) howls with delight at having won the Who'll Say That First Bet.
"It's there," Francis mutters, reddening. "Are we there yet."
"I will collect my five pounds after the game, thank you."
"Why the hell have we stopped if we aren't there yet?"
" There it is. Do I get a tenner?"
"Thomas - "
"It's Goodsir," Edward says. "He saw one of those ancient things from the sea."
"What, like a fish?"
Goodsir has come back aboard, his hands wrapped around something that looks like a fossilised cinnamon roll. "It's very rare," he's telling the growing bunch of curious footballers leaning over their seats as if they word-associated Jurassic with Period instead of Park. "Lots of these shells are crushed by the type of clay they're found in, so to have found one so complete is quite beautiful. I'll have to do a full study on this once we get back."
If we get anywhere in the first place, Francis thinks but doesn't say aloud, because that would necessitate chewing out Harry Goodsir, and that's a step too far even for him.
Thomas (Jopson) looks them up on Google Maps and against all odds they're only twenty kilometres out from Swindon, a half hour still to spare. Mindful of using the word miracle in present company, Francis instead begins to dish out instructions, the Terrors' side of the bus a hive of activity as they lace boots and gather training balls and try to find Edward's missing boot.
"It was just here - "
They're turning off the M4 and past the big John Lewis, pulling up soon to Penhill Rec. It's not the greatest of times for your star striker to have lost his footwear. Francis, scrabbling around beneath the seats, is painfully aware of the fact that at least 40% of the Erebites are filming the scene for future blackmail.
"At least it's only a boot missing," Thomas (Hartnell) mumbles, "and not a bloke."
The thing about Thomas (Hartnell) is that he's the human embodiment of Very Bad Feeling About This. Nothing against the boy personally; it's just that when a player like Honey has his jaw dislocated for the third time in a row after you're subbed on, there's got to be some weird shit happening.
So immediately Francis and Thomas (Blanky) look up and at each other. And immediately they stop looking for Edward's shoe and start counting the number of people on the bus. And slightly less immediately Thomas (Hartnell) blinks and says, "oo-er. I think we've lost Doctor Peddie, at that."
Well. It could be worse, but Francis's fundamental principle of leaving no man behind does tend to require not actually leaving any man behind.
Fitzjames tuts, more interested in giving Fagin a scratch than giving sympathy a go. "Oh dear. He must still be at the pub. Bad luck, Francis."
Francis glares back. He'll not be intimidated by someone who'd been in the Chinese Super League for a year and whose only showing for it was a bad tattoo and BB gun scar.
"We could go back for him," Gore offers generously.
"Go back?!" Francis blinks. "We only just got here - "
Edward shouts "I've found it! - wait - this isn't a boot, this is an energy bar - " exactly at the same time as the bus screeches to a halt and Fagin jumps out of Fitzjames's arms to quickly and methodically destroy Goodsir's very rare ringsteadia pseudoyo.
In the immortal words of the Beach Boys, this truly is the worst trip Francis has been on.
Francis runs through his mental checklist as gets off the bus and breathes in that sweet, sweet fresh air. All but one accounted for. His starting eleven is here, they all have kit, Thomas (Jopson)'s found Edward a spare boot that Francis suspects he might have stolen from one of the Erebites. Doctor Macdonald will stand in for Peddie, someone's sent bus instructions to the poor chap (a Peddie-cure, Thomas (Blanky) says, and is the only one who laughs), Peglar is no longer fraternising, and they've arrived at Penhill with seven minutes to spare.
All is well, in the end. Francis even finds it in himself to smile at Fitzjames, who looks much better, he thinks, with the clawmark accents from his beloved cheetah.
"Thanks for the lift."
Fitzjames shoots down the olive branch like a German penalty. "It just looked a bit pitiful, your van."
Only a warning look from Thomas (Blanky) keeps Francis from sticking up two fingers. "Keep your pity," he grumbles instead. "You'll need it for your men when you lose to Hobnobs."
"Can we please go inside?" Edward asks. "I'm close to freezing to death here."
It is blasted cold; the temperature seems to have dropped a few degrees as Francis leads the troop into the reception. The receptionist, bored and bespectacled as most receptionists are, glances up at them with a disturbing lack of both emotion and complete sentences.
"You here for the SWR game?"
"Yes," Francis says in a hurry, "and if you could just point us the way very quickly we'll be on time and it won't be a walkover."
"Did they not tell you?" The recep points to the noticeboard at the end of the table. "Pitch froze over. Cold snap down from the north. Game's postponed."
There is a long, terrible silence.
A very long, very terrible silence.
"Well." Francis looks at the recep, then at the team, then at the freezing cold outside. "I suppose we'll have to make our own way from here."
Edward mumbles, "I don't, uh, think Erebus are too far gone yet - "
"They are very far gone, Edward," Francis says gravely. "And we will not, under any circumstances, be calling them back."
"Right." Edward sticks his hands in his pockets. "Sorry. Yeah."
The recep stares balefully at them and then reaches for the phone. "Could try the AA for you. If you'd like."