‘You stand there, Dad,’ Adam said, pointing to a spot near where the goalposts had been. ‘I’ll cross it in.’
Max scouted around the penalty area, trying to avoid the dog poo. He took up a position between two piles. He hoped Adam wasn’t expecting him to head the ball. They’d pumped it right up before coming to the park and it was now rock hard. Maybe he’d catch it himself and claim he was a goalkeeper.
‘Ready?’ Adam shouted.
‘Ready,’ Max called back.
Adam took a few steps and stood hands on hips. What was he waiting for? A whistle? Max was just getting his lips into shape when Adam suddenly sprang forward and punted the ball. Max tried to follow its trajectory, but the sun was blinding and by the time he’d shielded his eyes, the ball was beyond him.
‘Very good, Ads,’ Max said, before jogging off after the ball, narrowly avoiding a poo pile. There were some boys at the other end of the pitch, maybe the same age as Adam. He wondered if his son knew them. These things worked differently at secondary school than they had done at juniors, and Max wasn’t sure he could name any of Adam’s friends now.
The ball had rolled into a hedge. Max reached in, but got scratched by the brambles and had to pull out. The blackberries were bursting. He should have brought a pot, got enough for Fran to make a crumble. Maybe they could all come back together later, get a good stash.
He realised that Fran would have seen the letter, of course she would. He’d stupidly left it on the counter, dropping it there unopened as if he couldn’t bear to touch it, as if it had burned him. She’d see the logo on the front, know what it was about.
‘Have you got it?’ said Adam, coming up behind him.
Max gestured towards the hedge. Adam took one look and contorted himself around the sharp branches, emerging in triumph with the ball. Not a scratch on him. Max gave him a double thumbs-up, then worried that this was exactly the kind of thing that annoyed his son so much these days.
‘All right, Adam?’
Turning, Max saw the other boys heading past them towards the rec.
‘Yeah,’ Adam said.
‘Still playing with your dad, then?’
They walked on. Adam looked down at the ball in his hands. Then he dropped it on to his foot and began to do keepie-uppies. Five … six … seven. He was good at it. So much skill. Where had he got it from?
‘You can go and play with them, if you want,’ Max said.
‘No, it’s all right,’ said Adam, keeping his eyes on the ball.
‘I mean, we don’t have to do this.’
This time Adam didn’t answer, just kept the ball going, up and down. Max was mesmerised by it, the rhythm, the complete control his son had over this object. He knew – and he suspected Adam knew too – that this wouldn’t lead anywhere, that Adam would never make it as a footballer, no matter how much he might want to. But what would he be instead? What could he become with such focus, such mastery?
Again Max thought of the letter waiting for him. He didn’t want to open it. He didn’t have the guts to open it, which was ironic, given that it was his guts that were causing all the problems.
Still Adam kept the ball in the air. How many was he on now? Forty? Fifty? How long could he keep going? A wasp flittered around the berries, drunk on the juice.
‘Maybe we should go home?’ said Max.
‘No,’ Adam said, his voice barely above a whisper. ‘Can we stay here? Can we please stay out here?’
Max smiled. ‘Of course we can.’
And he watched as Adam kicked the ball away in a perfect volley, giving it all he’d got.
Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, The Mechanics Institute Review #15, Litro and Storgy, and his journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and Telegraph. He can be found on Twitter: @iancritchley4.