The smell of football is not wet grass, mown to the shortest possible length; it is not cremated onions, raw sausages and mustard regret outside a football stadium. It is where Frank and Billy sit, where they have always sat, where they always will.
Frank and Billy sit. They sit with the smell of football around them. Cigarette smoke, stale and stagnant, that hovers harmlessly at head-height; the damp musk from the bar which could be a cloth saturated in spilt alcohol or the soup der jour. The strongest smell is undoubtedly that alcohol, sitting in a container half-full and half-empty. Every ray of sunshine jostles with the others to penetrate the grubby window; to warm, curdle and spoil the liquid. It is how we are all born, how we all warm, curdle and spoil.
Frank swills his pint glass to give it fresh life before taking another quick swig. Billy is talking, Frank is hardly listening - he's heard Billy talk for nearly 50 years now, and for a number of those he has sat, nodded and interrupted at intermittent intervals with monosyllabic words to give the illusion of understanding. Billy could be talking of anything, but most definitely football. Frank is wrong.
"The Conservative party are going to have us to ruin lad," says Billy. Frank jolts, as if prodded by a trident. At the age of 53, discussion about football doesn't do it for him any longer. He's tired of the game he thought he knew. His wife and children are now his priority, not overpaid footballers who don’t care about him. Not that they ever did care in the first place, he understands, but at least there was an effort to create the façade. Politics and politicians, well, that’s different.
"They are going to absolutely destroy us," Billy continues, his voice becoming shriller by the sentence, now at a pitch heard only by the dogs that trot along the pavement outside. A few moments of silence, a few more curdles of the drink. The sun isn't even shining. "Forget them, anyway. New season starts on Saturday, Franny."
Frank and Billy sit. Billy smiles, Frank sighs. After a brief respite from football, back to reality. As Billy begins chronicling the summer just gone, Frank glimpses outside the window. The shadows of the Liver Birds envelop all; the men, women and children who walk, run and drive past. In the distance, the ferry carries passengers from Liverpool to Seacombe, from Seacombe to Liverpool.
He and Billy have been sitting and drinking in that shadow for years; a pub no more than a stone's throw from the River Mersey, if only they could throw that far. This is a place that the elder gentlemen frequent to sit, to drink, to talk about the thing that defines them and their city. Grandfathers, former dockers, creatures of habit and salt of the earth; midweek drinks talking about football, Friday nights reading about football, the weekend watching football. For Frank, he's done it with Billy for nearly 30 years.
Billy. Thirty years of watching the same game of football. Thirty years of being his best friend. Frank doesn't know why Billy is still his best friend; best friends are the sort of thing everyone has to have, even if you don’t want them. Like having an aversion to hot drinks and owning a kettle, or a football club even if you don’t truly like football.
Not anymore, anyway. Frank looks at Billy and tastes a cocktail of begrudging respect, degrading pity and vague indifference. Billy is five years younger than Frank but looks about 15 more, a regular specimen until football is on his lips. But he's no regular specimen, just an encyclopaedia of knowledge, relentlessly firing all he knows to anybody in range. It's done enthusiastically, endearingly, a fire that has not extinguished from when he went to his first game of football. The smell of football is not onions or sausages, smoke or congealed beer because Billy does not smell, because smelling is the most disconnected of the senses, it requires less effort, less expenditure, than to feel, see, touch, taste.
"Do you reckon he's going to go, then?" asks Billy, breaking Frank’s thoughts, thoughts he has every day. Frank nods. Not the nod that signifies yes or no, but a nod of necessity, a sign of life. He doesn’t know and doesn’t care, but at least there is an effort to create the façade. He allows Billy to continue as he watches the ferry depart from Seacombe outside the window.
"I really, really think this is our year, you know. I know, I know, before you say anything, I know - I say it every year. But think about it, this really could be our year. Alright, so there’s a bit of work needed on the defence after last year, but who doesn't have that problem? The midfield is a little bit unstable, needs something else in there, but we can sort that."
Blue car, red car, blue car, yellow car. Frank watches them drive by, all different shapes and sizes, but ultimately serving the same purpose. The rain had now started to fall by now and the headlights shine bright, a regular occurrence in the summer months, illuminating the room in artificial light. Frank looks at the packet of cigarettes in his hand and realises he has been tapping it loudly during Billy's soliloquy. As he puts the packet into his pocket, he realises his hand, wrinkled and stained yellow, is the first visible sign of his ageing.
"Think about it, Franny. I know that fella might be off, but we can replace him with two or three others with the money we get for him. If he stays, even better. We've got some boss options up-front, you know. So there's still a bit of uncertainty about the manager, and there’s a worry how it will all fit together."
Billy takes a rare pause. The chatter throughout the rest of the pub, from 10 or 12 other groups of similar design, fills the silence. Frank shakes his glass and notices how flat it has become, his attempt to reinvigorate it failing. He arches the pint glass towards Billy and motions to his own drink, still plentiful. Billy nods and Frank cautiously empties the rest of his glass into Billy’s.
Thirst quenched and breath replenished, Billy continues, fuelled once more. 2And yeah, United will be there, as well as a few other teams, but this is our year. We've had a few bad ones, but we're on the right track." It is said with conviction, like a small child affirming his superhero powers with his mother’s lingerie draped on his head. Frank rolls his eyes in a rare burst of animation before glancing out of the window next to where Frank and Billy sit, where they have always sat, where they always will.
Frank sits. Alone. He sits facing the River Mersey, the grey and groggy water forever splashing back and forth against the docks. It has been 18 years since his pre-season chat with Billy, the last one he ever had with his best friend. No sooner had Liverpool’s 1995-96 season started with a win over Sheffield Wednesday that Billy dropped dead outside his front door, no chance to even tip his bat and acknowledge his half-century.
Frank often wondered if Billy's optimism killed him. Not literally; his heart did not stop because it burst with believing in everything and everyone. Frank laughed at the thought, because he would cry otherwise. Frank does not cry, so wonders if Billy's optimism made him write off every chest pain as indigestion, every headache as a minor migraine. Optimists don't think their body is eroding by the second, deteriorating due to the inconsideration of others. Optimists think that life will be fine, that everybody is immortal; everything good lasts forever and everything bad simply won’t survive.
Frank has a lot of time to think. His wife died in 2009, his children and their children moved abroad soon after. Now the wrong side of 70, the only side of 70, he has plenty of time to think. He thinks of how the world has changed; how phones now sit in pockets, how pockets now sit on trouser thighs. Big Brother is no longer a piece of literature, but a self-parody and primetime television programme.
But most of all he thinks of his wife, his children and Billy. He thinks of football and all the things Billy would ask him. He stood alongside him when Liverpool collected trophies as if they were dandelions in a field, begging to be plucked; he stood alongside him when the trophies stopped and the decline began.
He stands no more. It always struck Frank that Billy retained his enthusiasm regardless of Liverpool's performances. It struck him and infuriated him, it made him want to shake Billy, to prise his eyes wide open and point at the players before him. These people, Frank would envisage himself saying, are not your heroes. They are transient, they come and go; watch them drive by, all different shapes and sizes, ultimately serving the same purpose.
After Billy's death, Frank realised Billy knew this. After Billy's death, Frank realised Billy simply didn't care. Billy knew loyalty was fast departing football even then. In reality, it never really existed; they stood together when Bill Shankly forced some of the 1960s' best players into 1970s oblivion. Billy deep down knew the defence was shaky, the midfield was imbalanced and it probably was not his year. It was the belief it wasn’t going to be like that, and the fear it actually would, which he enjoyed so much.
Frank sits alone, no longer an Anfield regular, his body overthrown by a coup d'état of arthritis. After Billy's death, he made a vow to retain his pre-season tradition, even without his best friend. He no longer sits in the pub under the Liver Birds' shadow, but on one of the metal benches that line the waterfront. The pub no longer exists, the smell of football long replaced by the sterility of a wine bar, hotel chain and synthetic grass for street entertainers.
He clasps his home-made sandwiches and submits to the air which violently rushes towards his face. He turns his head left, then right; 360 degrees of change. His city has undergone a drastic redesign since 1995. The buildings are bigger, the people are brasher. They wear suits and talk into their hands, always quickly walking along the labyrinthine steel with no real destination.
He knows the world has changed far too much for him to comprehend, which is why he recreates those nights with Billy. The new season is only a few days away and he wants the only thing that doesn’t change. The players, rules and way football is thought of may have altered, but the hope, the belief and despair surrounding it never does. That bloated feeling can be suppressed but never subsides.
Frank stares at his withered hands, each wrinkle representing a couple of years he’s lived, like an oak tree with less mobility. A sigh of resignation, of pessimism; though he understood Billy and misses him, he does not necessarily agree with him. He knows Billy would understand. Death does not disperse the clouds. The rain, light but never gentle, falls into the river in front of him. Secretly he's happy, because nobody else sits outside in this weather.
Looking beyond the river, focusing on the nondescript landscape beyond, he speaks. His voice is barren, bereft of action; nobody talks to him anymore. He sits, where he always has sat, where he always will, and answers Billy’s questions. "I don't know if he's going Billy lad, but he's a bit of a sort, isn't he?" comes his opening gambit. "The defence should be okay, but the midfield is a minefield and the manager needs to sort it fast. And look, don’t worry about United, they're due to slip up sooner or later, their time at the top is only temporary, you know."
Frank takes a nibble of his sandwich and catches his breath. He thinks of all the changes in personnel at his club, but how the same things still apply now as they did then; he thinks of the good and bad times, of bratwurst in Dortmund and his hand-crafted fez in Istanbul, of Wembley despair with Eric Cantona and a Greek tragedy against AC Milan. He thinks of how the only thing that changed was Billy not being there.
Hunger satiated and breath replenished, Frank continues, fuelled once more, his voice stronger in cadence but weaker with emotion. "If only you could see it now. Nothing changed, you know. They're still struggling for form and they’re still putting in half-hearted shifts, while us lot foot the bill. Not even you would pay these ticket prices, I tell you."
A laugh, a genuine one of warmth on a chilly August day. "Who am I kidding? Of course you would. You'd probably buy about 20 tickets for others and refuse a pint, you daft sod. But it really hasn’t changed you know, everybody is still moaning about everything, still believing with every goal scored and despairing with every one conceded. You’re all as daft as each other."
His soliloquy to the seagulls has only just begun, but the bench to his left has become occupied. He looks at the youngster who is dressed in what he thinks is a jumpsuit and playing loud music from his pocket, and decides to end his chatter. It was only a whisper anyway, but he takes no chances, not in today’s world.
He slowly lifts himself from the metal, his knees creaking and buckling under the weight of old-age. Shuffling towards the barrier that has been erected between land and water, he looks out. The ferry from Seacombe has just departed and is heading back towards Liverpool. "Aye, nothing has changed Billy and we never learn," he whispers. "And maybe this might just be our season after all."