Roy was in the Sainsbury aisle trying to pick the flavour of crisps he wanted for his Ready to Eat meal deal when he suddenly thought about The Kid.
This was typical of The Kid to pop up in the middle of Roy’s thoughts, as if he had been playing hide-and-seek with Roy for the past fifteen years and Murphy’s law would have it that Roy only found him when he was least expecting it. Roy could be cleaning the hair out of his bathtub drain before the cleaners came round just so that he could save her the trouble, or he could be working himself a proper stretch in child’s pose with all the nans during yoga, and then with no discernible prompting or connection he would remember being twenty-two years old, and childish handwriting written in a fading blue pen.
And every time, Roy’s thoughts would fall along this pattern:
- Fucking hell.
- If only I could–
- His name was something like Georgie, wasn’t it?
- Don’t have a fucking clue.
- God, he must be (insert number) years old now.
- God, please let him be okay.
And then The Kid would blend into the backdrop of Roy’s thoughts again, until several months down the line where he would think about him all over again.
It was never intrusive, because Roy welcomed the thoughts–ushered them in and sat them down for tea and then felt shitty for not inviting them in sooner. Which was honestly over the top of him, because The Kid was one of a million kids, and unfortunately, he was probably one of a thousand kids. The kind of kids that stuck to the back of your heart, the kind of kids that haunted you like you’re in some churchyard that dated back to the twelfth century and all these headstones for infants without any names made you existential and shit.
The kind of kids that made him look at Phoebe and hug her tight until she squirmed and moaned Uncle Ro-o-o-oy because she was loved enough to be tired of him (but only a little bit).
Except he wasn’t with Phoebe right now, because Phoebe was at school and Roy was at Sainsbury’s and he had a triangular sandwich and a bottle of Innocent fruit smoothie and he needed one more side to get his lunch for three quid fifty (gone were the days when meal deals were an even three quid, God fuck this Brexit economy), and now he was thinking about The Kid and his heart softened like a bruise.
Shit, he thought, as he surveyed the flavours of crisps.
Fucking hell, he thought as he picked up the Worcestershire sauce crisps.
If only I could–
His name wasn’t Georgie, Roy was certain of it. And even if it were, there were about ten million Georges in the UK. Not even counting the fucking prince. It wasn’t a lead so much as a red herring.
Roy put back the crisps and picked up the fruit cup. It wasn’t any of his players’ cheat days, and it didn’t feel right to indulge.
God, he thought as he queued up for the self-checkout tills. He did the maths in his head, counting back his age and adding it to the number nine.
God, Roy thought. He must be twenty-three years old now.
He scanned the sandwich, the smoothie, the fruit cup. After all three items were scanned, the prices rearranged themselves and the screen flashed three pound fifty. He swiped his credit card, held the entire meal in one hand, and walked back to Nelson Road. He took in a deep, untethered breath, and he thought with a jolt how lucky he was to do so.
God, he prayed. Please let him be okay.
When Roy was a twenty-two-year-old footballer and a proper twat, he received fan letters by the hundreds.
He had received just about everything in the post, from detailed pencil sketches of his face to women’s pants. One fan had sent him the ultrasound of their baby with the promise to name the child after him when he helped Chelsea win the FA Cup. His manager had sorted most of it out for him–pre-signed headshots to be slipped into any fan mail that had included a return envelope, the rest politely stacked in some nondescript box in some nondescript storage closet.
Then there were the letters from children.
Even when he was a proper twenty-two-year-old twat, Roy took care of the children’s letters himself.
Many of them were no older than twelve, although there were a handful of teenagers who would write a whole page to him. Some of them were sent via a not-for-profit organisation–usually children in at-risk neighbourhoods, or from rough homes. A good number of them were children who had a broken leg, or were in the foster system, or they were sick. The moment his manager dropped off a stack of children’s letters, Roy promptly took his head out of his own arse to go through all of them–envelopes stained with some sort of snack, handwriting in fat crayon, spelling really a matter of mood more than principle. Didn’t matter to him if they came in clean, polite stationery or if they were written on the back of a Nando’s advert.
Of course, he was never good with words, much less writing them down, and he said the word fuck seven times within the first twenty minutes of meeting a group of Make-A-Wish kids. That was to say, he did not know what to say to kids when they told him that he was their hero, or that they wanted to be just like him when they grew up, so he would say to them, “Fuck no, you don’t,” or, “Your teacher’s a fucking bell-end, so don’t listen to him and play your fucking ball.”
When he was juggling several children’s fan letters, crumpling up pieces of paper because every response he tried to write was abysmally unfit for the eyes of the upcoming generation, his sister snorted and said: “Jesus, Roy. Weren’t you once a kid too?”
Sometimes he wasn’t quite sure if he ever had been.
But he sat down at his kitchen table, ballpoint pen in hand, and he remembered what it was like to have little feet and monsters under the bed and when he had to stand on a stool to wash his hands. He remembered being with his grandfather, which might’ve been the last time he ever really got to be a child, and what Granddad would say when Roy said he wanted to be a footballer, eight and a half years old and still crawling onto Granddad’s lap. He remembered what it was that he was glad to hear, or more often than not what he wished that he heard, and when he wrote to Briony who was getting bullied in an all-girl’s school, he also wrote to a little Roy, the youngest boy in Sunderland who was four hours away from home.
And somewhere in that mix, he received the letter from The Kid.
He couldn’t remember the child’s name, as he had done one too many headers in his career to retain that information before his brain hit twenty-seven and sealed off any cognitive learning capabilities for good. He couldn’t even remember where the child lived, and admittedly he did not handle the envelopes with return addresses since his manager dutifully sorted that matter out for him.
What he did remember was that the child wrote in a half-dried ballpoint blue pen and that they were nine years old. And he remembered some of the lines that the child wrote, sentences in loopy, uneven lines that pierced Roy like a bullet. Somewhere in the UK, a nine-year-old kid took a sheet of lined notebook paper and doodled a Transformer playing football with Roy on the back of it, and wrote, “I hope if I become a footballer I can get Mum a nice house and win lots of trophies so she will want to stay home.” They wrote, “I try to be a good kid, but sometimes I still get sad.”
They left a dent in Roy’s brain.
They were not necessarily tear-jerking. They were not memorable by poetry or even by tragedy. But it was the fact that this little kid somewhere in England wrote his Gs all chubby and rambled to his football hero about his neighbour’s pet cat and then wrote about how his only meals are during school and his mum didn’t want to stick around for him because that was as normal to him as Mr Wibbles. The fact that to this child, his greatest dream was to play football with Roy Kent of Chelsea and to not be sad anymore.
Roy was not equipped for this sort of thing.
He couldn’t ring the NSPCC hotline based on a fan letter. He couldn’t track down this child’s parents and scream some sense into them to look after your fucking kid with some level of catharsis because he would be saying what he himself wished that he heard. He could only read the letter with the loopy Gs and the misspellings and feel the inaction and ineptitude use his stomach as a bungee cord.
“It’s not our place, Kent,” his manager said placatingly. “We don’t know the full story. You’re a footballer, Roy. You’re his role model. But you’re not his social worker.”
You wouldn’t say social worker if you didn’t think something was wrong too, Roy said.
His manager did not contradict.
Well, fuck me, Roy said.
Roy was a twenty-two-year-old professional footballer so he typically felt like he was fucking invincible, and now he was helpless. His whole career demanded that he run and sweat and tear every muscle in his legs to get the job done, and now all he could do was sit at a kitchen table with a sheet of stationery and a pen with his manager’s agency name on it and try to accept that this was enough.
So Roy wrote, like he did for every kid who wrote to him, kids with loose baby teeth and kids with brain tumours and kids who missed their granddads too and kids who were starting a different grammar school from all of their friends and kids who wanted to go home.
He wrote to this kid whose name he can no longer remember because he was a fucking idiot, he supposed, and he did not write everything that he wanted to say.
Instead, he wrote about how he would love to play football with the kid one day, that he knows how the kid is working hard to be a good lad and be responsible and that he wasn’t too keen of school either, he hadn’t the highest marks in history or geography but things still worked out for him.
He said, I remember being nine years old too, and he didn’t lie about it. He remembered being a kid and hating it when adults lied.
He said, I know what it’s like to be hungry, too. And you’re gonna be okay.
You’re gonna be okay.
He should have known better than to make any promises.
In the ensuing years, Roy would receive a thousand more letters, hear another thousand more stories, and get caught up in his own personal dramas–Phoebe’s birth, his sister’s ex, fucking Doug–and he would forget several things.
He would forget where he put this kid’s letter, whether he saved it in his own house or if it was at the manager’s office. He would forget the kid’s name, and maybe that was a good thing, because Roy would sometimes feel the itch of curiosity–or rather, putting an end to the misery of his questions. He was tormented with the thought of what he might find if he searched the child’s name on Google–if he would find a tragic news story. If he would find an obituary.
But he would never forget the kid.
(God, please let him be okay)
Rebecca had proposed a new partnership opportunity with the underprivileged children’s charity that AFC Richmond had relationship with for the past several years. On top of the usual fundraising gala, where people could finagle Richmond’s finest into once-in-a-lifetime dates that cost an arm and a leg, she posed the opportunity to the team to write to the children that they benefit.
“Five letters per player,” she had said in a leadership team meeting. “Our club can give more than just money to support these children; we can give them a little bit of hope.”
“It’s the hope that heals you,” Ted piped up, which made Rebecca hide her smile.
Roy was not entirely convinced that all of the players on Richmond were literate, but he kept that to himself. After all, Isaac had set on fire the only pen he could write his name with. Which would be tricky because Roy had no doubt that that was true.
But at the very least, AFC Richmond was promptly agreeable when Ted presented the idea to them and asked a flurry of questions, including, “Can we send them a PS5 as well?” courtesy of who the fuck else.
Higgins assigned each player five children to write to, which would be sent to the community organisation to dole out on their behalf. And because this was an earnest assignment, it demanded proper adult supervision, so Ted set aside an entire training day to serve as a group letter-writing day at one of the conference rooms on Nelson Road, complete with multi-coloured pens, a Bluetooth speaker playing autumnal jazz music, black coffee, and a batch of Ted’s shortbread adapted to their nutritionists’ recommendations (Ted couldn’t use sugar so it tasted like concrete). Although the conference room was outfitted with a table and chairs that any practical human being would use to their benefit, the boys were scattered on top of the table, hanging over chairs, and sprawled on the floor in positions that only youth could make pass as comfortable.
Roy was also assigned letters and decided early on that he would rather write out in the pitch while the lawnmower was making its rounds than in the conference room where Isaac was testing out all ninety-seven pens that Ted had purchased from Ryman and rating them from one to a hundred (what he planned to do about the missing three, Roy could not figure out). He grabbed several sheets of stationery, a notebook for a flat writing surface, and one of Ted’s pitifully health-conscious shortbreads and sat himself in the stands to write to a child named Charlie who, according to the short bio that Higgins had attached, loved Harry Potter and watching football matches with his toddler brother.
Other than the drone of the lawnmower, it would have been the most ideal place to finish his letters. Solitary, silent, and without the constant smell of cooling black coffee thick in his nose. He reckoned he could make it through at least two and a half letters before his lower back started to protest that he wasn’t at a proper desk.
Until halfway through letter two he heard someone sit down in one of the stadium seats next to him.
Roy resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Fucking Ted Lasso had his way of sniffing out where someone was hiding when they needed just a minute of peace.
“It would kill you to leave me alone, wouldn’t it?” he said.
“Is that all it would take?”
Well, that was definitely not Lasso.
Roy looked up and blinked. Jamie Tartt was sitting two seats away from him, with his own set of stationery and ink-smudged hand, raising an eyebrow at Roy.
“‘Cos I’ve been trying to poison your fruit smoothies this whole time and all it seems to do is make you uglier,” said Jamie.
“Fuck off,” said Roy. “What are you doing here?”
Jamie indicated the green ink pen in his hand.
“Same thing as you, aren’t I?” he said.
“Right,” Roy said. “You know that there are twenty-five thousand other seats that you could be sitting in right now, don’t you?”
“Oh, damn, you’re right. Here–”
Jamie scooted one seat closer to Roy. Roy took in a deep, stabilising breath.
“What do you want?” Roy said.
Jamie shrugged and looked down at his half-written letter. Roy stole a quick glimpse of it, or at least he tried; Jamie immediately shuffled the blank sheets of paper over it.
“I just don’t know how to write to a kid,” he said.
“Right,” Roy said. “That doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”
Jamie’s jaw twitched. He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he turned the pen over in his hand.
“I dunno,” he said. “Thought you might have an idea.”
“Bullshit,” he said.
Jamie’s eyes widened in that Muppet-mannered balk that Roy could not fathom could belong on the face of a human being.
“The fuck do you know?” Jamie said.
“I’ve seen you when the team goes to visit the children’s hospitals,” said Roy. “And when we have kids running after us asking for autographs. They fucking love you. It’s annoying.”
“Yeah, but that’s different, innit?” Jamie said. “Talking to them, that’s different from writing. If I ask a kid a question, they can answer me to my face. And I can high-five them. But I can’t do that here, can I?”
Roy grunted. It was a valid enough complaint. One that he knew well enough.
“Don’t you write back to any of your fan letters?” Roy said.
Jamie’s face turned sheepish. “Sometimes, but they started the conversation, don’t they?”
“Jesus,” Roy muttered. He sighed deeply and figured that much like football training, giving Jamie pointers would get rid of him quicker than arguing with him. “You’ve had to start the conversation when a kid was starstruck and couldn’t talk before, right? Just–talk out loud, if you have to, and then write it down, if that helps. But if you’re going to do that, I suggest you go to the opposite side of the stands because I’m not here to hear any of it.”
He uncapped his pen and scratched a couple more sentences onto the letter. Jamie had gone quiet, which hopefully meant that Roy’s plan worked. But when Roy glanced over to Jamie, he saw that pen had not touched paper. Jamie was sitting there, not saying a word, and he was watching Roy.
“If you’re going to take some time to think about it, can you at least stare in a different direction?” Roy said.
“Whatever, Granddad,” Jamie said, although he did turn to face the pitch. He looked down at his fingers smudged with green ink. “You ever written a fan letter?”
“Yes,” said Roy, not looking up from his letter.
Roy muttered inaudibly.
“Wait, who?” said Jamie.
“Kermit,” said Roy.
Jamie’s arched brows furrowed, as if he had to do mathematics to recognise the name.
“The frog?” he said.
“No, Kermit the fucking tax accountant who works in the Gherkin. Of course Kermit the Frog, are you done asking questions now?”
Jamie’s mouth split open into a toothy grin.
“You’re being serious,” he said in awe. “Bloody hell. What did you write?”
“Are you Kermit the Frog?” said Roy.
“Then it’s none of your fucking business.”
Jamie sputtered. “You gonna be embarrassed by something you wrote when you were seven?”
“No,” Roy said, neglecting to correct Jamie in that he had not written that fan letter to the Muppets at age seven, but twenty-five.
“He write you back?” Jamie asked.
“As a matter of fact, they sent me a signed group photo,” said Roy. “And it is hanging on my refrigerator door to this day.”
Jamie gave a low whistle. “They don’t play around.”
He leaned forward in his seat, his elbows resting lightly on the back of the stadium seats in front of them. There was a deliberate pensiveness in his subsequent silence, as if he was lying in wait. Roy hadn’t the faintest idea what that could be, but so long as it did not involve him and so long as Jamie kept his mouth shut, Roy did not protest as he wrote on.
“Back in Man City, there was this player,” Jamie suddenly said.
Roy took in a deep breath before capping his pen again. This was not the sort of work that he could do whilst multitasking.
“Name’s Carson,” said Jamie. “Been with City the longest out of any of us.”
“Yeah, I know him,” Roy grunted. “Played against him plenty.”
“Yeah, but you also played in the Christmas Truce,” Jamie said. “So at this rate it isn’t very surprising anymore.”
Roy did not bother hiding his incredulity that Jamie knew what the Christmas Truce was.
“Anyway,” said Jamie. “He was saying this one time that he once wrote a letter to a kid when he was first starting off, so like he must’ve been twenty or something. Now skip a couple of years and he’s thirty-six years old now, yeah? So it’s been like sixteen years and Carson’s at a Boots getting himself something for his spring allergies, and the pharmacist is helping him sort out his prescription–”
“Where are you going with this?” Roy said.
“--and after he’s all done,” Jamie said loudly, “the pharmacist pulls out his wallet and takes this folded piece of paper out of it. It’s all crumpled and soft and when he unfolds it, Carson’s looking at this letter that he wrote to a ten-year-old sixteen years ago.” Jamie paused and then chuckled wryly to himself. “That kid kept it until he had kids of his own. Carried the letter right next to the baby photos.”
Roy did not realise that he was fully facing Jamie until Jamie’s voice pattered out into mumbling and then silence, and when he looked up he pulled back in surprise as if he didn’t expect to see both of Roy’s eyes on him. Roy was nearly the same age as Carson from Man City–kids that he had written to when he was at his prime in Chelsea would be adults now, and a letter from their football hero might still be a little light that they will pick out when they look back on their childhood.
“It’s just–” Jamie mimed his head blowing up. “I never thought about that before until he was talking about that before training one day. I signed a ton of shit. Met a load of kids. I try to be good to them, always. I like making ‘em happy. Just never thought about how they might remember it ten years from now. Can’t wrap me head around it.”
“That’s because you were born only twenty minutes ago,” said Roy. “The ink on your birth certificate is still drying.”
Jamie scowled and turned away, but Roy couldn’t help but smile wryly because a point must be had. Jamie was twenty-three, just now becoming a man and only needing a hop and a skip to reach back into his childhood years. He’d think that nostalgia was the name of an allergy medicine. His life has been too short for anything to come full circle, meanwhile Roy’s life had taken several laps. Jamie had a ways to go.
“So what?” Roy said. “You’re suddenly thinking before you speak? Or in this case, write?”
Jamie shrugged mulishly, unwilling to admit that he was, evidently, nervous as hell. Roy poked him in the temple.
“You’ve been a kid before,” Roy said. “Just write what you would have wanted to hear.”
Jamie bit his lip. He cast a sidelong glance at Roy, lips parted in a question that became air instead. He looked back down at the sheet of paper on his lap, tapping his pen nervously against his knee.
“How are you writing yours, anyway?” Jamie asked.
When? Roy thought to himself. When the fuck was Jamie Tartt ever uncertain about anything?
He watched Jamie silently, the drumming of the pen against his knee and Jamie stealing hesitant glances at Roy as if he was a kid longing for the chocolate bar in his playmate’s hand. He always saw Jamie as a kid–a bratty, foolish kid who needed reminding to drink water every half an hour. He still saw him as one now, but with a patience that he almost exclusively reserved for Phoebe when her voice would shake if it was the middle of the night and she needed a glass of water but was afraid of going to the kitchen alone. After all, Roy was once scared of the dark too.
He leaned back in his seat and sighed heavily. He held up the half-written letter and cleared his throat.
“Dear Charlie,” he read aloud. Jamie straightened immediately as if he was a sinner in a church pew. “I hope you are doing well. I’m Roy Kent–”
“Of course he knows you’re Roy Kent,” said Jamie.
“Do you want to fucking know what I wrote or not?” said Roy.
Jamie scrunched his nose but kept silent.
“I’m Roy Kent, and today is such a good day because I get to write to you,” Roy continued. “I’ve been thinking about you a lot while I was getting ready to write to you. Whether you might be having a good day or maybe a bad day when you get to read this. Whatever kind of day you might be having, there are better days ahead.”
Jamie brought his feet up onto the chair so that he sat cross-legged. He fixed his gaze on the drifting lawnmower down on the pitch as he listened, his shoulders sagging into a quiet ease.
“Today, I am going to play some football with mates. What do you like to do that makes you happy?” At this, Roy felt his ears grow hot. “And then it’s just me nattering on about–”
“You’re not getting out of this,” said Jamie. “Go on.”
“We’re about to play West Ham soon, which we’ve been working our arses off for–”
“You allowed to say that to a kid?” said Jamie
“That’s it,” Roy said, folding up the letter and standing up from his seat.
“Not a peep from you, then. We’re about to play West Ham soon, which we’ve been working our arses off for. I know our team is going to play well and give it our all, but I still get nervous right before a big match. Even though I’m not playing anymore–” Roy scratched at his eye distractedly. “--but it helps to know that I’m with the whole team and that whatever happens, win or lose or draw, we’re doing it together. Charlie, whatever you’ve got going on today or tomorrow, you’re not alone. I know you’re doing your best every day and that your best looks different some days, and it looks different from others, but it’s your best and that is incredible and I am proud of you.” Roy coughed into his fist and then waved a cursory hand. “And then I haven’t finished it yet, but that’s what I got.”
He braced himself for Jamie’s ruthless teasing, but instead he was met with silence. He turned around to see Jamie staring down at the ground, his hands tucked into the hems of his jacket sleeves. His face, whose expressions rendered himself transparent to the thoughts that had the misfortune of crossing his mind, was momentarily unreadable. Then, a soft smile tugged at one corner of his lips.
“Big ol’ softie,” he said.
He tucked his pen behind his ear and swung himself off of his seat, his own sheets of paper folded between his two fingers.
“Think I got the main idea,” he said. “Cheers, mate.”
He began to walk away, down the aisle of seats towards the steps. Roy watched his retreating back, his brow pressed into a frown.
“Oi, Tartt,” he called out. “Don’t go stealing my lines.”
Jamie saluted lazily without looking back at Roy before he jogged down the steps, leaving Roy with his half-written letters and the tireless lawnmower, making one last round along the edges.
Sometimes, when Roy thought about The Kid, he also thought about The Other Kid. The Other Kid, he had more answers for–such as how that kid eventually grew up, if they were happy and alive, if they are proud of the person they grew to become. The Other Kid, in fact, was himself.
Because Roy would often daydream about what sort of adult The Kid grew up to be–if they were brought up by foster families, or if their mother shaped up and came back home, if they ever got to play football on their school team like they longed to, if they were happy. He would sometimes even imagine what The Kid looked like now–Roy had always pictured the kid as a boy, with freckles and a missing front tooth and something of a pageboy cut, but that was fourteen years ago.
Now, The Kid couldn’t be called a kid anymore–he probably had stubble above his lip and stood at least six feet. Roy could walk down Edgeware Road for a kebab and have passed the Kid without ever recognising him, even though he thought about him for over a decade. Maybe he had a spouse already, or maybe he enlisted in the army. Maybe he was homeless for a stretch of time, panhandling outside the National Gallery whilst being ignored by droves of tourists, or maybe he was working as a Henry Hoover salesman, maybe he was angry and bitter and maybe he was still sad. It could be any of these, and Roy would long to ask The Kid all about it.
And for whatever reason, his mind would wander until it found itself at the door to his childhood home in South London, in muddy trainers and with skinned knobby knees. He would be young and stand only four feet five, with a constantly runny nose and a childhood lisp, and he would remember how this was how Granddad always ever knew him to be. If an afterlife ended up being real, or in some cruel kismet all of Roy’s prayers that Granddad would Obi Wan Kenobi his way back into this side of heaven and saw him now, Roy wondered if Granddad would even recognise him.
Roy was no longer the child that Granddad knew–in fact, if he looked back at his old self, through the dusty glass of a photo frame, he could not truly recognise himself. After so many years and after a hundred thousand thoughts, he must be miles and miles away from the boy with the weathered blanket around his shoulders, riding in the back of the car on his way to Sunderland because he was still too young to sit in the passenger’s seat. He was miles away from the boy whom Granddad loved, and even if Roy was proud of the person he became he couldn’t help but feel a little shitty about that.
Granddad, look, he thought. I became a footballer, just like you said I could. I played for Chelsea, I got my own anthem, I got to play for fifteen years. I’m in love now. I’ve got a niece–Tara gave you a great-granddaughter and she’s a terror and a dream come true. I get to coach my friends, I get to watch them grow.
There’s more. When you died, I hid in a janitor’s closet to cry so that the other boys wouldn’t see me. Tara and I still get in arguments about Mum—I try not to, but I do anyway. When Tara finally divorced her husband, I stayed with her for six months because she was terrified that locked doors weren’t going to be enough, and I never told her this but I was scared for her too. When I kept hurting my knee and fucking up in matches, I was so angry and I was so scared and I was so fucking miserable, Granddad. Do you get to know any of this, or are you waiting wherever you are, thinking about me and crossing your fingers that one day I’ll get to tell you about all this myself?
Are you waiting, wherever you are, and thinking–God, I hope he’s okay?
This was when the phenomenon revealed itself fully to Roy, because if there truly was some essence of Granddad in the universe, who could still think and feel and remember, he would be lying in wait, with bated breath, to sit Roy down at the kitchen table with a hot cup of Ovaltine and listen to him talk about his day, because he loved him. Even when he wasn’t yet a footballer, or when he hadn’t made any good decisions, who hadn’t yet done the hard thing of trying to be a man, Granddad still loved him.
Somewhere walking around in England, God willing, there was a kid, now a twenty-three-year-old man, who might be struggling to do the right thing. He might have gotten the family he needed all along, or he might be alone, heart shuttered up against the storms. He would not have the faintest idea that there was someone he never met who desperately wished the best for him, who thought of him and worried for him and wanted to know him.
He wouldn’t have the faintest idea that someone out there loved him.
Roy was going to put an end to that.
His former manager did find his request rather odd, to put it lightly.
“What makes you think I’ve still got all your fan letters from 2007?” she said over the phone.
“I’ve seen the state of your office,” said Roy. “You’ve got an original copy of the fucking Magna Carta somewhere in there, probably.”
“...All right, come by sometime Thursday. You can pick it up from the office.”
After training, Roy drove by his manager’s office; just as he was approaching the glass doors, she was wheeling out a dolly sagging with three bulging cardboard boxes, bumping into every possible doorframe.
“Your nostalgia’s going to throw my back out, Roy,” she grunted as she tried to kick open the door with her stiletto.
Roy grabbed the dolly handle and easily pulled it through the doorway. Even though he had the muscle mass to easily manoeuvre the boxes of fan letters and load them into the boot of his car, the volume of them made his heart sink. He would be lucky if he found the letter within a month, and that was banking on the hope that he had not misremembered the year that he received it.
“Appreciate it, Lila,” he said.
“If you want any other year’s fan mail, you better collect them quick,” she huffed as she straightened out her blazer. “Or I’ll be throwing everything out by the end of this month.”
“Noted,” Roy said, knowing that she would never get around to it.
He drove the boxes of letters back to his house and hefted them onto the kitchen table. The box had seen better days, the corners bruised with dents and wrinkles and the tape that sealed it shut now dirty with years of dust that seeped through. He eventually resorted to a kitchen knife to saw the top open after trying to wrestle it off himself and was met with letters upon letters, filled to the brim.
The task immediately overwhelmed him, to which he promptly coped with by brewing himself a cup of tea. When he circled back to the box, he felt like he was about to skinny dip in the arctic like some Russian coming-of-age pastime. He drew in a deep breath, reasoned with himself that it was far too late to change his mind, and picked up the first of a thousand letters.
After a quick read-through, he deduced quickly that this was one of the letters that came with a woman’s panties.
In that moment, Keeley’s spare keys rattled open the front door.
“Roy?” Keeley called out from the foyer. “You forgot to close your boot again.”
“Cheers,” Roy said, tossing the ruled out letter onto the kitchen table.
“Oh, I never said I closed it for you, babe.”
She came into the kitchen, beelining to the fridge for one of his bottles of kombucha that he stocked up in the back. As she took a detour to kiss him on the back of his shoulder, she tilted her head quizzically at Roy’s ongoing project.
“What’s all this?” she said.
“Fan mail from the early 2000s,” Roy said, skimming the second letter on the pile. “Dear Roy, I creamed my knickers when you won the FA Cup–right, not this one.”
“Very sexy,” Keeley said. “Any particular reason?”
Roy sighed heavily. “It’s a long story.”
“Is it any longer than the story about when you found out Vin Diesel has a twin brother?” said Keeley.
“Well, that’s all right. Just let me get a kombucha first.”
Keeley poured them both a glass before perching herself on top of the counter. Roy took a sip of the kombucha and then a sip of his previously brewed tea before he felt up to the task again.
“When I was in my early twenties, I got this letter from a kid,” Roy said. “And I’ve been thinking about them ever since except I don’t remember their name or where they were writing from and it finally occurred to me that I could just go through my old stuff and find out.”
Keeley nodded attentively. Then she realised that he had finished his story already and was moving on to the mountain of letters again. She prodded him with the toe of her shoe.
“Well, what was it about this kid’s letter?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Roy said. “I guess they broke my heart a little.”
He put aside another letter, which wasn’t the one he was looking for but was a soft blow to the stomach anyway. It was from a father who was thanking Roy on behalf of his teenage daughter who was a big fan of Chelsea, and how she had died in a car accident not too long ago but also fourteen years ago, now. Sometimes he felt like he was casually given people’s histories that all ended in cliffhangers; sooner or later he was going to develop a fear of heights.
“The kid was nine years old, yeah?” said Roy. “And he’s just writing about how much he loves football and how he likes watching my play and then he says something that makes me think holy shit, this kid is in a bad place. This kid has it hard, and he’s just talking about it like it’s a fucking book report he has to read out loud in class. And I don’t know–it just made me think, shit. Who’s looking after this kid? I can’t look after this kid, but if not me then who is?”
He drained his sour kombucha in a swift gulp. Keeley swung her legs gently against the counter, letting Roy’s nerves simmer down before she spoke up.
“What are you going to do when you find the letter again?” she said.
Roy sighed heavily.
“End my misery,” he said.
“What, write him back?”
“No–I mean, I already did write him back, when I first got it. I just–” Roy hesitated, suddenly caught red-handed with this mountainous task for such a small, simple, and possibly heartbreaking end result. “I can’t help but worry if he might not be alive anymore.”
Keeley’s face fell. Roy turned away, half embarrassed and half self-righteous.
“Go on, then,” he said. “Tell me I’m being dramatic for doing all this.”
“You’re being caring, Roy,” Keeley said. “It’s really sweet.”
“And?” Roy said.
Keeley stopped worrying her bottom lip, tucking it in front of her teeth hastily. Roy raised his eyebrows.
“Well, now I’m worrying that he isn’t alive,” she said. “I don’t want you to have to find that out.”
Roy’s head bobbed once in a nod. He wasn’t sure what he would do if that turned out to be the truth. Was he going to track down the kid’s gravestone and lay a lily on it? Have a drink? Would that be enough to get them off his mind? If Roy knew anything about himself, the answer was no.
Keeley slid off the counter and picked up another letter from the top of the pile.
“All right,” she said, “so what should I be looking for?”
“You don’t have to do this,” he said.
“No, it’ll be fun to read all your fangirls’ letters and feel smug about it,” she said with a wink. “Come on, then. What can I do?”
Roy stared at her as he tried to make sense of her love that struck him full-on like a rogue double-decker bus. He eventually found his derailed train of thought again and cleared his throat.
“Er–they drew on the back of it,” Roy said. “Little doodle of me and a Transformer playing football. I think it was on lined paper, too.”
“You and a Transformer. Got it. I’ll play some mood music.”
For the next two hours, Roy and Keeley spread the letters out across Roy’s kitchen table, counter, and coffee table, until his house looked like the first book in Harry fucking Potter. Keeley immediately initiated a sorting system–cheeky letters in one pile, children’s letters in another, and then lined paper letters separated from cards. The cheeky letter pile multiplied in size exponentially.
“Oh, lined paper!” Keeley exclaimed, nearly spilling her drink over the letter in excitement. “Maybe it’s this one. Dear Roy Kent, My name is Joshua Cobalt and I love you so much–check this one, love.”
Roy frowned and glanced at the letter. He made it through two lines before he shook his head.
“Not this one,” he said. “The Gs aren’t right.”
“I remember how this kid’s handwriting looks like. It’s not this one.”
Still, Roy took the time to read through the rest of the letter, even though it was two and a half pages long and a significant majority of it was scribbled out in a second-guess.
“Could it be this one? Emmanuel Dawodu?” Keely asked, waving another letter over her head.
“No, I remember that one,” Roy said. “And he wrote about me for his school assignment and sent his essay over.”
Keeley read through Emmanuel’s letter before raising her eyebrows, impressed.
“Full marks, the both of you,” she said. “Roy Kent is a good example of a tragic hero if he were in literature because he is nice and brave and leads Chelsea to victory but then he broke his nose at the very last match against Arsenal when he got nutted by Doug–well, he’s got the main idea, well done.”
“The fucker said he’d buy me a drink for my trouble and never did, you know,” Roy said, picking up another letter.
“All good things come to those who wait, babe.” Keeley picked up a jaunty Christmas greeting card from the pile and flipped it open. “Oh, Roy! This kid had Sellotaped a candy cane to your card and you never ate it!” She peeled off the candy cane, which was little more than powder sifting in its plastic wrapping. “Well, sugar doesn’t really go bad, if you’re feeling a bit peckish–”
“I found it,” Roy said.
Keeley immediately threw the candy cane and card over her shoulder. She leapt over the coffee table to Roy, who stood still in the middle of the living room, a folded paper with frayed edges in his hand.
“You did it!” she squealed. “Oh, Roy, well done! So what’s their name, then?”
Her smile froze on her face in anticipation, but Roy couldn’t speak. He felt the rush of nerves overtake his body until it shoved the rest of him out, like he was a spirit hovering over his own living room.The loopy, chubby Gs were just as he so keenly remembered, as if it were only yesterday he had read it and instantly recognised. The Transformer was still caught in a perpetual game of football with Roy, whose cartoonish face had not yet grown facial hair but made up for it with the volume of his eyebrows.
It was like he had found a lost relic of King Arthur, thus proving a convincing legend. He hungrily read the letter in its scratchy blue ink.
Dear Roy Kent,
I am so excited that I get to write you. You are my favourite footballer in the whole wide world. You are the best player in the UK, I think you are the best player ever. I love watching you play and I am really excited that you are going to be in Manchester to play against Man City next Saturday. It will be so cool that you and I will be in the same city.
I watch as many of your matches as I can at my neighbour’s flat because she always has football on and sometimes she lets me watch with her. She thinks you are great too and she asks me to tell you that she thinks you are very fit. We cheer when you score a goal which is all the time because you’re the best. She has a pet cat named Mr Wibbles and he likes watching too I know this because he always comes out of the loo when your match is on and he lets me pat him.
I want to be a footballer when I grow up too and I want to be as good as you. Do you think we could play together? You would be the best teammate!! I am nine years old now so maybe we can play together when I get older. Maybe one day you could play for Man City I don’t think I’m allowed to play for Chelsea right? Will you play football forever? Please play forever!
I’ll try to get good as soon as I can. I try my best in school, and I like to play football with my classmates. Even my P.E. teacher says I’m not half bad. I like school because the teachers are nice and I get to eat lunch but I have a hard time with reading. Did you like school? What did you like best? Sometimes I can’t go because Mum can’t take me she is not always home and I think she gets sad that she has to take care of me but I love her. I hope if I become a footballer I can get her a nice house and win lots of trophies so she will want to be home. What do you like most about football Roy Kent?
I try to be a good kid, but sometimes I still get sad. What do you do when you are sad Roy Kent? What do you do so that you are less sad? When I am sad I like to watch your matches because that helps me feel better. I like watching you win and playing with all your mates. You look so happy when you play and you are so strong and fast. How do you get so strong? I hope I can be strong like you one day. I’m not very strong right now, so I get pushed a lot. I hope I can be strong and brave like you. I think you must be very brave Roy. My neighbour says you have a lot of nerve when you score a goal that was very hard. And that when you were my age you went far away from home to play football. Was it scary? Did you miss your Mum too? What was it like?
Can you keep a secret? I am scared all the time. I know that makes me a scaredy cat and I don’t want to be one anymore. Sometimes when I’m scared or when I get hurt I think about what you would do and I pretend to be you and sometimes it helps. I hope I can be a great footballer like you and then I won’t get hurt none.
You are my hero Roy Kent and I hope one day I get to tell you that to your face.
Jamie A. Tartt
The last line of the letter swallowed Roy whole.
All of a sudden, he felt every single second of the past thirteen years condensed in a breath. His stomach swooped and seemingly never came back for air, as if he had finally toppled over the cliff and met the bottom at full force.
“Roy?” Keeley said. “You all right?”
Roy opened his mouth and couldn’t put into words the fragility collecting in his chest. Keeley gently tugged the letter out of his hand and read it herself. One glance at the handwriting and she blinked before looking up sharply at Roy, but he was still rendered speechless so she read on, holding the letter nearly up to her nose in her haste.
He could see the exact moment when she finished the letter, because her eyes widened and then shone brightly.
“I kind of want to cry,” she said, sounding halfway there already. “Shit.”
She gave a watery laugh and looked back up to Roy. Her face immediately softened, which made Roy suddenly aware of the knot in his throat.
“I remembered him,” Roy said.
His voice was smaller than he remembered it ever being past the age of twelve. He took the letter back from Keeley and drank in the tiny words written by the boy who had haunted him. There were still those looped Gs that he had seen on whiteboards in Nelson Road, in hasty notes tacked to cubby number nine, only a little older, a little neater, in any other colour.
He had found the Kid–he had found him this whole time.
“It’s–” Roy swallowed, then swallowed again. “It’s been years, Keeley. I remembered him this whole time.”
Keeley slid her arm around his waist and pulled him close. Roy lost control of his lips, which twisted as the words and emotions he tried to keep inside of him forced their way out.
He had found the Kid, and he was alive. He hung a poster of Roy Kent on his wall growing up, and his father put him through hell. He had not always been okay. He had suffered, he had been angry, he had acquainted himself with swinging fists, he had laughed, he had loved, and he was alive.
He was alive.
Roy’s heart shattered.
“I always wondered what happened to him,” he said. His voice was strangled. “I always wished that he was okay.”
Before he knew it, he started to cry. Keeley’s arms tightened around him, resting her soft cheek against his shoulder as he covered his eyes with his hand, teeth bared in his weeping.
“Fuck,” he choked out. “I don’t get why I’m crying.”
A beat, before Keeley responded.
“Because you know now,” she said. “You know he got to grow up. And it wasn’t easy for him when he did.”
Roy pressed the inside of his elbow to his eyes, his breaths shaky and in his chest. Jamie got to grow up like Roy had always hoped. He got to become a footballer, like he had always wanted. He got to learn and lose, break bones and hearts, love and fail, break down into tears in the middle of a locker room in Wembley after his dad tried to hurt him, sit next to Roy and listen to him read aloud a letter that was once written to him too. He must have thought that Roy had forgotten him.
“I remembered him, I remembered him,” Roy wept, which was as close to him saying I loved him this whole time as he would ever get.
Keeley had said under no circumstances was she going to invite Jamie over to her house on Roy’s behalf.
“If you want to talk to him, you’re going to be the one to reach out to him,” Keeley said, unwavering in her patience and intolerance for bullshit. “And you can reach out to him. Because you’re friends.”
Roy grumbled under his breath.
“Yes, Roy,” Keeley said, a half-smile tugging at the corner of her lip. “That is what you two are.”
“He’ll think I’m asking him over so that I can murder him,” Roy said.
“Is that what you want him to think if you ever ask him over?”
Keeley raised an eyebrow, to which Roy sighed exasperatedly.
“Fine, no. Maybe sometimes.”
Keeley gave Roy a meaningful look, which made him mumble away his obstinancy.
“I believe in you, babe,” Keeley said, ever the champion for lost causes.
Roy suspected that Jamie would prefer being murdered over what he would actually ask Jamie over for. He had tried to reason with himself that now that he knew the Kid’s identity, and his eventual fate, that his curiosity was satiated and there was no need to ever bring this up to Jamie in any way, shape, or manner for as long as Roy was a coach for AFC Richmond. But then his goddamn emotions and thoughts kept getting in his own way, posing pointless questions like but is he actually okay and what happened to his mum and does he carry my letter to him in his wallet until he spent several training sessions staring so intently at Jamie that the rest of the coaching staff noticed.
“You okay there, bud?” Ted said while the boys were running their sprints. “Something on your mind that would take an Oprah episode to puzzle out?”
“What?” Roy said.
“You look like a serial killer who found his next target,” Beard piped up from behind his trusty sunglasses.
“Well, that’s not exactly the comparison I was going to make, but the spirit of intensity is still there,” Ted said.
Roy gritted his teeth. “Thought you two knew me well enough to know this is my resting face.”
“Oh, no sir,” said Ted. “See, the Roy Kent resting face is what I would describe as looking at a lion who has just settled down for his after-meal nap. He’s still got the teeth, but he has no need to bite.”
“Are you saying that I’m a sedentary lion?” said Roy.
“Today’s different, though,” Ted continued. “Today, I would describe your face as the face of someone who’s watching E.T. for the first time, during the scene where the FBI is taking him away from Elliott.”
“For your information, no it isn’t,” said Roy. “Because I fucking bawled during that scene.”
“Whoo, I hear you,” said Ted with the shake of his head. “Always gotta call a plumber when that scene is going, because everything is leaking buckets. But what I mean is that you’re looking at these boys doing knee-ups like it’s a Spielberg family friendly tragedy you can’t take your eyes away from.”
Roy grunted. He followed Jamie’s laps around the pitch, searching aimlessly for some reason for his stomach to settle.
“I would nominate this fellow to another session with the Diamond Dogs,” Ted said.
“No,” Roy said immediately. “Fuck that. Whistle!” And he immediately launched himself in a crusade against Bumbercatch’s lacklustre knee-ups.
Unfortunately, Ted had made an astute observation that Roy couldn’t keep explaining away until either he retired from coaching or until Jamie got scouted by another team. He felt like he was harbouring an intricate secret that, if revealed, would amount to absolutely no payoff. The facts were simple: Jamie A. Tartt, age nine, had written Roy a fan letter fourteen years ago. Jamie F(ucking) Tartt, age twenty-three, was currently executing drills under Roy’s tutelage, and more importantly, he was alive. Regardless of what had happened in between.
Except whatever was in between was lodged into Roy’s mind that he couldn’t floss out on his own.
You know he got to grow up. And it wasn’t easy for him when he did.
Roy had sworn to himself that he would love this child if he ever found him. He wasn’t going to let himself get in the way of his own promise.
He waited until training was over and the boys cleaned themselves up proper before he approached Jamie in the locker room. Jamie was rooting around his cubby after his shower for his jar of pomade that Roy knew for a fact that Isaac had nicked. Roy drew in a deep breath and strode up to him.
“Jamie,” he said. “Are you busy?”
Jamie looked up to Roy, blinking bemusedly.
“Was heading to the canteen for lunch,” he said. “Why?”
Roy imagined himself sobbing in the middle of the Richmond club canteen whilst surrounded by the other boys shovelling hard-boiled eggs and salmon into their calorie-deprived bodies. It was almost enough for him to make a rain check for his emotional appeasement immediately.
“Let’s grab it together,” he said.
Jamie’s eyes lit up momentarily as if he was meeting Mickey Mouse in Disneyland Paris for the first time on his tenth birthday, which only made Roy even more convicted.
“Right, sure,” he said. “I mean–guess someone’s got to get Granddad his mushy peas.”
“And I’ve got to get you your fucking kid’s menu,” said Roy.
The Richmond club canteen was one of the most miserable places in all of London that Roy had ever set foot in. He did not know that this was true until he had finally retired from football and was introduced to a life free of dietary restrictions and generous with carbs and butter. Now, when he realised that the salad bar was the crowning glory of the canteen in a world that had pasta bolognese, he was gripped by the true sacrifice that his career had demanded of him all these years.
And so when Jamie tittered eagerly to himself because he could include roasted beets and avocados in his salad when Roy knew for a fact that Keeley was cooking eggplant parmesan tonight for dinner, he felt like a prisoner freed from Plato’s cave and now had to crawl back into the darkness for the sake of this sorry, blind, omega-3 saturated lot left underground.
He loaded his plate with two servings of chicken.
“Not in the mood for your usual kebabs today?” said Jamie.
“Who told you I ate kebabs?” Roy said automatically.
Jamie shot Roy a look of exasperation, which if Roy got to have any say in it was demeaning to be on the receiving end of it.
“God, it’s the end of the fucking world,” Jamie said. “Jamie Tartt knows that Roy Kent likes to eat kebabs ‘cos he’s ordered Uber Eats from the same shawarma spot at least five times now. Time to file a restraining order.”
He wiggled his fingers to add to the foreboding effect. Roy stabbed at the lightly seasoned chicken breast and shoved it into his mouth.
“For your information,” Roy said, “it’s been seven times, and it’s Grubhub.”
“Is that supposed to be any better?” said Jamie.
Roy leaned across the table towards Jamie.
“It means I get to eat all the red meat that I want,” he said.
Jamie scowled as he salted his hard-boiled egg.
“You know what the chef’s been letting us try lately?” he said. “Carrot cake protein balls.”
“Sounds horrendous,” said Roy.
“Fuck off. Coaching life treating you well, innit?”
Roy’s lips quirked into a smile. Jamie heartily ate his serving of salmon, careful not to leave any flakes of fish behind on the plate. He ate with a militaristic sweep, leaving behind no stragglers.
“So,” said Jamie, “you gonna tell me why you’ve been looking at me like you’re standing at someone’s deathbed all day?”
“The fuck?” Roy said.
Jamie raised his eyebrows, chewing thoughtfully on his brown rice and not repeating himself. Roy’s jaw twitched.
“Didn’t think you’d notice,” he grunted.
“I always notice when people look at me,” said Jamie. “It’s me.”
“Yeah, well, I assumed you would chalk it up to some rubbish like envy or lust or whatever.”
“I’ll never rule it out,” Jamie said cheekily.
Roy gave Jamie a rude hand gesture before letting his hand fall lamely onto the table, half curled into a skittish fist.
“I mean, it’s not like you’ve got a poker face,” Jamie said. When Roy made an offended noise from the base of his throat, Jamie threw his hands up. “What? You’re not. S’not like you hide your feelings. You’re just shit at them.”
“Sorry, I missed the part where you came to all these conclusions. Where the fuck are you getting at?”
“Maybe I’m a psychic,” Jamie said smugly.
“Only because your own head’s so empty, you pick up echoes.”
Jamie rolled his eyes.
“All right, so go on and tell me I’ve got it wrong,” he said. “If it’ll make you feel better.”
Roy clenched his teeth. Jamie stared expectantly at him, one eyebrow slightly quirked upward and pulling the corner of his lip up with it. Roy would love to hate that face right now. Threaten to knock its teeth out or make a jab about his threaded eyebrow. Except Jamie didn’t know one thing, and it was that Roy had his fair share of observations as well: what he observed was a faint, raised scar jotted down across Jamie’s brow bone.
I hope I can be a great footballer like you and then I won’t get hurt none, Jamie once wrote, and it hadn’t come true.
“I was going through some of my old stuff yesterday,” Roy said.
That took Jamie by surprise and in mid-chew. He hastily swallowed down the vestiges of his spinach and avocado. Roy thought that he could manage looking Jamie in the eye when he spoke of this, but quickly concluded that pouring all his attention in sawing at his chicken breast was far more manageable. He didn’t know what he was dreading, or if he dreaded anything at all. Perhaps it was simply inevitable to be emotional when you tell someone you care about them when you hadn’t done a very good job of it.
“And, er–I was looking for a letter I had gotten years ago,” Roy said. “From this nine-year-old kid. Could never remember their name, but I remembered what they wrote. It was all sweet and shit. And then it was a little–It stuck to me. Like a song I couldn’t get out of my fucking head.”
If Roy would look up now, he would see why Jamie had gone still and silent. He would have seen Jamie put down his fork and lean back in his seat, as if he was settling in for a long-winded story from Granddad, or as if he was trying to back away to make his escape.
“Basically, I thought about this kid for thirteen fucking years and I always wondered what happened to him,” Roy said, shoving the words out of his mouth so that they would stop cowering behind his goddamn teeth. “I always wished I could, I don’t know, write to him again or talk to him and find out how he was doing. Couldn’t get them out of my head so finally yesterday I looked for the letter and then I found it. And it was yours.” He took in a deep breath, only to waste it on a heavy-laden sigh. “Jamie, it was yours.”
He finally looked up to Jamie. Jamie’s gaze was downcast, one finger picking thoughtlessly at some dried juice stain on the canteen table. For a moment, his face was perfectly guarded, until Roy was half convinced that Jamie had let his mind wander the minute Roy had started talking. Then, his lips twitched into a grim smile.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath.
He let his head fall back as he scratched at his brow with his thumbnail, his eyes closed in a way that reminded Roy of Ms Bowen when she would sit him and Phoebe down to tell him that Phoebe had knocked a classmate’s tooth out and Phoebe said, but now Billy gets a visit from the Tooth Fairy early, so really, he should be paying me for knocking his tooth out. As if Jamie’s childhood self was an exasperation.
“Was kind of hoping you forgot about that,” he said.
“Well,” Roy said. “I didn’t.”
He did not know what he expected. It wasn’t like he thought Jamie would burst into tears and they would hug to some John Williams score. But he certainly expected it to be a little more than lacklustre, with Jamie avoiding eye contact like they had to keep their cover in a bloody sting operation.
“I was fucking tiny,” he said. “I was like, six, or seven.”
“I just said that you were nine.”
“All right, you’re a maths genius, no need to brag about it.” Jamie took his paper napkin and tried to use it to scratch off the translucent pink juice stain on the table. “It was a long time ago.”
“Didn’t realise it was that damning to want to write me a letter back in 2007,” Roy said.
“No,” Jamie said suddenly. “No, it’s not that.”
He laughed wryly; he balled up the used napkin in his fumbling hand which Roy only just noticed now was shaking. Jamie’s face slackened briefly, insecurity bobbing up to the surface.
“I really thought you would have forgotten about that,” he said quietly.
“You drew me playing football with a Transformer,” said Roy. “Of course I’m going to remember that.”
Jamie’s lips twitched into a smile.
“Show Megatron some respect,” he said.
“I would’ve kicked his arse in that match anyway,” said Roy.
Jamie laughed, which momentarily untangled a knot in Roy’s chest, when he began to see that the indifference was actually a hard and protective shell around vulnerability.
“I don’t even remember what I wrote,” he said. "Probably something like, I want to dress up as you for Halloween so I bought myself a werewolf costume, right?”
“Har har,” said Roy. He pushed a raw broccoli around his plate. “You wrote about your mum.”
Jamie’s face momentarily became someone entirely unrecognisable. “I did?”
Roy nodded. He felt his insides freeze in unison–lungs in mid-breath, heartbeat stilled, oesophagus closing shop for his fossilised stomach. The last millisecond before the skydive.
“I guess–that was the part I remembered a lot,” said Roy. “It sounded like she…well. It sounded like she wasn’t really around.”
“She was,” Jamie said automatically. Roy blinked, and Jamie’s face was several shades redder. “She wasn’t like Dad or anything. Whatever I wrote, don’t pay any fucking mind. I was a stupid kid.”
“You weren’t a stupid kid,” said Roy. “You were just a kid.”
Jamie took a long draught from his water glass. He wiped his lips with his chafed knuckles.
“Yeah, well,” he said with a small laugh. “So was she, when she had me.”
Even though his appetite had at this point promptly closed vacancy, he took another bite of his brown rice. Boys like him and Roy never grew up with scraps left on the plate.
“It weren’t her fault,” Jamie said at length. “She isn’t–wasn’t well. Life’s been hard on her, you know. Everything with my dad–she didn’t come from a good home neither–and then she gets left alone with a baby, and she hasn’t got money and no one else has got any money, and it’s stressful, innit? And we’ll do anything to stop hurting sometimes, don’t we? So if you’re thinking–whatever you’re thinking about me mum, just get it out of your head, yeah? She’s a good mum. It was a hard job. But she’s a good mum.”
Roy watched Jamie draw his arms tightly across his chest, his sleeves bunched up in his hands. In that moment, that unrecognisable person in Jamie’s face had become someone too close for comfort. It had become Roy.
“My mum wasn’t always around either,” he said.
Jamie stilled. He looked up cautiously to Roy, like a child creeping up the stairs to the attic that they were normally too afraid to explore. Roy sighed deeply, the years of his age shifting off of him in a single sweep like the autumn leaves of a ginkgo tree, and suddenly he was laid bare.
“And sometimes I get really fucking upset about it as an adult,” Roy said. His chest twinged with guilt just saying this. It wasn’t his mother’s fault that she couldn’t be around. That Dad needed to work double shifts and that Mum was constantly going across town to see specialists, and sometimes it seemed to Roy that she was relieved he was sent to Sunderland four hours away because she had one less thing to worry about. Dad always urged Roy to give Mum some leeway, she’s not always well and that’s not her fault, she needs her little man to be strong and mature even though he was a child who could be scouted by the top football academy in the UK and still be forgotten. Look after your fucking kid, he had wanted to say. “Even if it wasn’t her fault, really. But I was a fucking lonely kid and I shouldn’t have had to be. So I read your letter and–I thought–I didn’t want you to have to feel like I did.”
Jamie slumped back in his seat, his shoulders drooping with a pensive burden. There was something about the way that he looked at Roy, his forehead smooth and lips pursed, that made Roy feel with a jolt that somehow the tables had turned.
“Sorry that it’s me,” Jamie said.
“Excuse me?” Roy said.
“I’m sure you pictured a cute little kid who wrote that to you,” he said. “Or some local saint who saves kittens from starvation or whatever, who grew up to be a good lad instead of the prick who pissed everyone off–”
“Jamie,” Roy said steadily. “I’m so fucking glad that it was you.”
Jamie looked up slowly. There was a sharp glint of cynicism in his gaze that hastily tried to eclipse the smallness that shone through Jamie’s face, that look of a boy who wanted someone to tell him a happy lie, because for better or for worse sometimes that was what parents did.
But Roy was telling the truth, and for better or for worse sometimes that was what parents did too.
“You are?” Jamie asked.
“Fuck yes,” Roy said emphatically. Jamie turned his face away with guarded scepticism. “Jamie, look at me. I didn’t spend thirteen or so years hoping to meet a saint. I just wanted to meet you.”
Jamie looked at a loss for words, his gaze fixed on an empty table diagonal from him as if looking away would be the death of him like some down-market Lady of Shalott. The same bloke who had fans chasing him down Oxford Street and trying to take a selfie with him on any given day didn’t know what to say when Roy said he wanted to meet him. This, Roy realised, was the dichotomy of the young man who sat across from him: Jamie would boast all day about Jamie F(ucking) Tartt and think the sun shone out of his arsehole, but he didn’t love Jamie A. Tartt, the boy hidden behind closed doors.
“I'd said in the letter back that I wanted to play football with you someday too, didn’t I?” he said. “And it turns out I really did get to do that? I’m over the fucking moon.”
“You wrote that?” Jamie said.
“Yeah,” Roy said. “Didn’t you get to read it?”
Jamie opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Yeah,” he said. His voice immediately puffed up with empty casualness, like a goddamn popcorn. “Yeah, I mean–haven’t read it in ages, so.”
Roy raised an eyebrow. Jamie bit the inside of his cheek and he looked down at his beet salad.
“I know you wrote back,” he said. “I just never got the chance to read it.”
“Oh,” Roy said. It was a dull blow.
“I wanted to,” Jamie said hastily. “I did. It’s just–” He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “When your letter came, my dad got a hold of it.”
Roy’s stomach sank immediately.
“He didn’t live with us, but he still came round ‘cos of child support and all that,” said Jamie. “And that day, I pissed him off and he said he was going to teach me a lesson and he took the letter. Said he’ll only give it back to me when I earned it. ‘Cept he chucked it the minute he left and didn’t tell me until a good while later.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Don’t even remember what it was I did.”
When Jamie had mentioned his father, Roy had braced himself for the tsunami wave of anger that often crashed over him at the thought of James Tartt Sr. Destructive, torrential, more apocalyptic than the earthquake that had caused it. But instead he felt an overwhelming sadness for all twenty-three years of Jamie. He saw, for just a moment, that Roy Kent cared, and it still didn’t matter.
Jamie got to grow up, and life had made it so goddamn hard for him every step of the way when it didn’t have to be.
“That was a shitty thing for him to do,” Roy said finally.
Jamie chuckled hollowly.
“You’re preaching to the choir, mate,” he said.
“I mean it,” Roy said. His hand gripped into a fist on top of the canteen table. “That was really fucking shitty of him.”
Jamie’s lips twitched. It went by too quickly for Roy to discern whether it was almost a smile or almost a frown.
“Jokes on him, innit?” he said. He reached over to punch Roy lightly on the shoulder. “Got the big man himself eating lunch with me.”
Roy snorted, hiding the twinge in his chest that instinctively disbelieved he was any sort of consolation prize. But Jamie’s smile widened, embarrassed and hopeful, and it struck Roy that he was telling the truth, too. Affection and protectiveness set a course in him like a Northern Star.
“I always wanted to say so much more than what I wrote back to you, anyway,” Roy said.
Jamie’s smile weakened to pensiveness. Roy shrugged, self-conscious but honest in a way that was brutal only to himself all the same.
“I was just some footballer halfway down the country,” he said, “and I was worried that you weren’t getting enough to eat and that no one was looking after you when they should have. All that about your mum, that wasn’t your fault. Every kid–every kid deserves to be looked after.” His lips grew heavy and the words could manage hardly more than a mumble. “So yeah. I always…I always wondered about you. And I wanted you to know that. I hadn’t prayed much after my Granddad died, but when I got your letter–for the longest time, you’ve been the only thing I prayed for.”
He set down his fork and tiredly threw up his hands–there you go, he meant to say. Do with it what you will. He would let Jamie end this decade-long saga however way he wanted now–whether with a scoff or an eye-roll or an awkward excuse to leave the conversation, but regardless, Roy would have told the truth and Keeley would be proud of him and shit and Jamie–Jamie would at least know.
Know that Roy never forgot him.
On the other side of the table, Jamie wasn’t saying much.
He still had his arms wrapped around his middle, his hair falling across his brow in a boyish gracelessness and his chin lightly tucked towards his chest. Roy had always thought to himself before this moment how the Kid would be twenty-three now, as if that was a feat and a milestone, but now he was looking at Jamie and seeing just how young he still was.
“I had a poster of you,” Jamie said.
“You told me,” Roy said.
“I put you over my bed, in my dad’s flat,” he continued. “And sometimes–fuck. Sometimes I’d be crying on my own, right? In my room? I’d be alone and I couldn’t go to anyone about what was going on and I’d just sit on my bed and go to pieces.” Jamie rubbed the back of his neck, his shoulders hunched. “And I remember, I thought–it felt like someone else was in the room with me, looking down at me. That I weren’t alone. And it made me feel safe, even if I wasn’t. I told myself that it was because of you. But maybe–maybe it was.”
Roy had promised himself that he would not cry in the middle of Richmond’s canteen. But Jamie’s words cut him close to the heart, and his eyes grew warm and fogged. All those little prayers, the cursory thought in Sainsbury’s, the emotional plea in the middle of the night, from age twenty-two to thirty-five–he would have never known that they were being answered two hundred miles away.
After years of tormenting silence about Granddad, Roy had given it a shot anyway, and it mattered.
"I hate that it's too late," he said in a thick voice. "But for what it's worth, Jamie, you're not alone. You're safe now."
Jamie gazed up at Roy before he slowly smiled–crooked, like he was growing into it.
"It's not too late," he said.
Roy swallowed hard and nodded, the warmth of all the unexpressed love he had set aside all these years finally spilling out from him in waves. It felt like a forgiveness.
“What does the A stand for, anyway?” Roy said, to find his footing before he too fell to pieces, because Jamie would not let him hear the end of it.
Jamie blinked. Now his cheeks pinkened brilliantly.
“None of your fucking business,” he said.
Roy’s lips twitched into a smirk, laidback with an easy voice so as to make this rapport between them a soft place for them to land.
“All right, Jamie Arsehole Tartt,” he said.
“You Grade A pillock–”
And while Jamie rattled on at him like a yowling cat, his face scrunched and voice freely loud and carrying over all the other conversations in the canteen, Roy’s chest hurt with how much it stretched with a swelling heart.
The A was short for Atlas. Mum said she chose it for Jamie because she wanted him to draw strength from his namesake. Atlas was to endure, to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders for the sake of creation. The first and only son of a poor young woman who was already bleeding before she gave birth to him, that was all she could hope for him.
Jamie loved his middle name because it was his mother’s gift to him, as much and as little as Jamie was a parting gift from his father. He wrote it on his homework assignments–JAMIE ATLAS TARTT–until they learned Greek mythology proper in class and he found out that Atlas was condemned, and then all the kids thought it would be funny if they made him carry all of their rucksacks. He was an easy target, once, and in some ways, he still was.
By the time Jamie was playing football, under his father’s supervision and when his name was beginning to matter, he dropped the middle name initial. Easier to sign paperwork, easier to roll off the tongue when lads his age found any reason to rib each other. And once his signature was worth a significant amount of money, Jamie Tartt’s signature became a seamless blend of Ja….T…tt, easily gracing souvenir kits, footballs, photographs of his own face, the occasional body part. Atlas was his carefully guarded secret between only him and his mother, and since she was not around to scold him anymore, raise her voice and go Jamie Atlas, what do you think you’re doing?, it was his own secret now.
So when Jamie opened the small drawer above his Richmond club cubby to return his jar of pomade to its proper place the day after lunch with Roy, he needed several seconds to comprehend the envelope propped up inside with the words Jamie A. Tartt written across it, in a handwriting he had seen scrawled over whiteboards and petty sticky notes reminding the boys to not keep dirty laundry in their cubbies.
He looked around the room quizzically to see if anyone else had gotten a letter, but no one else held an envelope in their hand or even bothered looking in their cupboard for a mysterious message. He then leaned over to look through the coach’s office window, and he could only see Ted and Beard sitting inside exchanging sandwiches.
He sat down on the bench and flicked open the flap, which Roy had gone out of his way to seal shut despite the fact that Jamie was going to open it five minutes later. Inside was a folded piece of paper covered in writing, and even though Jamie hadn’t read a word of it he already felt the weight of its contents climb onto his back like a toddler asking for a piggy-back ride–solid weight, enough to knock his breath out, but an easy load that came with the reverberations of someone else’s heartbeat.
He pulled out the letter and unfolded it with baited breath.
I’m Roy Kent, and today is such a good day because I get to write to you.
(yeah I know you know who I am but I start all my letters off like this so shut the fuck up)
You are one of the best footballers that I know and I’m really glad we got to play with each other, even if neither of us really had fun at the time. I’m even glad I get to coach you because it means I get to boss you around and you have to listen. But it’s also annoying because when you listen you get even better and then I have to be proud of you because you’re one hell of a hard worker.
You know I am also proud of you because even though you are a prick deep down, you’re a good kid through and through. Took you a while to get there but fuck, don’t we all. Doug Forset would be so fucking stuffed that I get to be friends with you even though I was nothing but a twat to him, but also he did deserve it.
Yeah, I hope you’re proud of yourself too, for that. And I guess you can also be proud of your football skills and whatever but I mean it. I had all these guesses of what kind of person you would grow up to be when I read your letter. All these theories and scenarios. I meant it when I said it, Jamie. I’m so glad that he was you. I hope your kid self could know that even though it’s gonna be hard as hell he’s going to be okay. There will always be someone who will look after him, even if he doesn’t know who they are yet.
You’re a good man, Jamie. I'm glad that I get to tell you that.