Without so much of a second thought, Anthony had always presumed it would be at home. At least the home it has become. It had felt natural to imagine it that way, easy, a brokered comfort. Perhaps he should have spared the time to encumber his naivety, just as this unrelenting curse has his movement, his fitness, his self.
This had been supposed to happen in January, before January, during long, barely hindered stints at a waterlogged pitch on the riverside. It will be raining its April showers down there now, that pitch will be sodden beneath unlit flood lights on the banks of a river that is bursting. Anthony wouldn’t know. From one hundred and eighty miles away even this is mere presumption.
The changing rooms are abuzz, alive with the jitters of twenty two others. Feet are drumming on the floor, studs counter-melodising with the crinkle of wrappers, the slurping through crumpling plastic bottles, the pinging and ringing of last minute messages. Anthony checks over his own, slumped in a booth that is finally his whilst equally not.
There’s nothing new. Still, he checks over the few from earlier once again. From club mates of old and teammates only in rose. The simple congratulatory well-wishing from Fordy, eerily similar from Banas with the addendum of unbreakably paternal reverence. Jack’s is longer, tender, endearing and reading over it once more is almost enough to thaw through the icy numbness attributed by more than just the Manchester climate. His eyes slip shut as the goose flesh prickles, as the phone falls back into the useless depths of his kitbag.
Not useless anymore. Anthony forces the reminder upon himself. Why is it so difficult to remember?
A warm pressure spreads over his knee. Anthony’s sombre eyes don’t flicker from their peace. From across the room he can hear Joe, the previously quiet child now loud and boisterous in his imposition. This wouldn’t have been him anyway. This is familiarity.
Finger and thumb alike pinch at the tautness of his kneecap, a silent reassurance that carries through the throb and pulse in his nerves and veins, that settles into the scars of injury like the medicinal it’s been for all this time. That he’s been for all this time.
Blindly, Anthony finds the wrist connected to the hand, lets his fingertips brush against the very veins that pulse there instead. So starkly he reminds himself of how little this should be so simply about himself. The very source from which he steals his courage, with which he cripples upon for support, that source has suffered too, has suffered worse. Bereaved in such a traumatic manner, painstaking injury of his own taking almost as long to rehabilitate, the taunting of international training during the Six Nations only to have selection ripped away so brutally.
Anthony closes his fingers around the wrist. He feels so selfish.
When his eyes open, JJ isn’t looking at him, his eyes are set off in focus of something vaguely distant. In fact, he’s listening intently to Charlie who is addressing them all, his tone dropped away from friendliness into a serious captaining command. Anthony hadn’t realised the hush that had come over the room, hadn’t even noticed when Joe’s voice had ceased to boom; he’d been so encompassed in his own demanding internal intricacies.
Upon sparing him a glance, the looming, large kid looks small as he listens, enraptured, smiling. In Anthony’s peripheral, JJ’s gaze is still fixed.
It must be captivating, whatever their captain is saying, but Anthony can’t hear a word, can only feel. Feel the pulse beneath his fingertips, feel the warmth on the surface of skin seeping steadily into his own. Just as Charlie’s voice had done the abuzz, this presence does Anthony’s firing neurones -calms.
The coming knock on the door is loud and spell-breaking when it eventually arrives. It’s all Anthony can do not to flinch as the sound draws all other attention. He really does flinch when the steady pressure on his leg relinquishes, but he quells the threatening protest before it can spill. This is their indication. It’s time to go.
Together they trail the tails of their team, sink back from the herd and the camera searching for its fill. They find their way to the tunnel, to the draft that drifts in with the noise of spectating. Anthony does his best to ignore the stiff ache in his heel as that familiar presence persists behind him still.
That same hand from earlier finds a place on his shoulder, the grip this time brief, but reaffirming. Anthony’s strength is behind him, holding firm, lifting him high above the water that’s spent more than a year attempting to drown him.
Suddenly the touch is gone, and the team is running, and finally Anthony is running after them. His leg gives one final twinge before it sets into action.
Nipping at his weakened heels is a spectacular force of might.