Northallerton (2)

After the match, Dyce walked into the bar and looked round at the decor: one or two shirts behind glass from past juniors who’d moved on to better things, wood shields with school badges, flags from touring teams, and a ragbag of trophies and team photos. Housed in a modern shell. Dyce had visited a few in his time and recognised the pattern. They would have sold the old place to a supermarket and built a designer club with the proceeds. A bit like those pubs that are always the same whether you’re in Newcastle or Cardiff. You either stamped out in protest or relaxed in familiarity.

A large bloke at the bar was perusing an ordnance survey map. Dyce wondered if he was the open side prop? It’s difficult to know when preoccupied, packing down next to a smelly hairy arse with thighs as thick as old tree trunks and nearly dislocating a shoulder. Anyway the bloke had put his specs on.

Dyce’s neck cracked as he looked up, ‘Hi, I’m Dyce.’

‘Dave Hale.’

‘Oh, what’s your map, Dave?’

‘It’s the west coast.’ Dyce nodded. The west coast of where? There was only one west coast as far as he was concerned. The one with Blackpool in it. Dyce looked over Dave’s shoulder, and there was Skye. Ah, Scotland. Not somewhere Dyce knew well at all.

‘I’ve not been. What’s it like?’

Dave described the place with his photographic memory for mountains and lochs. Dyce hadn’t a clue what he was on about but managed ten minutes worth of a passable impression of someone paying attention.

‘Where you from Dave?’


‘What line are you in?’

‘I work for BT,’ the pint pot was hidden in his fist as he drained his beer dregs. He turned to the bar, ‘What’s yours? Two bitters please. First game today?’

They moved to the end of the bar. Early evening on a cold winter Saturday when rugby men the world over gravitate to smoky rooms to quench their thirsts. Rugby’s a strange thing, thought Dyce, and hard to give up, even when you’re old and supposedly in a responsible job. The sign over the door read Northallerton RUFC and it was hard to miss expresses dawdling up the East Coast main line just beyond the dead ball area.

‘Andy at the surgery said to come down. I’ve played for The Fettlers up to now.’

‘That’s it now you’re in the thirds, Roger will never let you go.’

Dyce wasn’t fussed. The Fettlers were the extra team, for the ignored; a graveyard of knackered veterans and pimply-faced blind youths. Every rugby club has one. They’d taken ten men down to Harrogate one week. Couldn’t have played them at soccer. Harrogate were short too, so they handed over one of their’s. North also dragged in a spectator off the touchline. An army lad, from Aldershot, visiting his girlfriend for the weekend. Must’ve had a tiff. Did he have his kit with him? Or could The Fettlers cobble a strip together? Anything’s possible if you’re mad keen, or desperate, and everyone’s got a spare something in their bag. He played in the centre and they were thirteen-a-side. The pitch was one of those that can be vaguely seen from the clubhouse on clear day, just on the horizon, and a quagmire with a force nine crosswind. On the half way line there was a pond that could have hosted the Fastnet. The game was nip and tuck during the five minutes that the wingers were not chasing down to Knaresborough to retrieve the ball. Just before the end jilted lover scored the winning try. North ran around kissing and hugging each other. Harrogate were stoney-faced. A local derby that neither likes to lose, especially Harrogate RUFC members, who, some people say, especially those from Northallerton, have an overinflated sense of their importance. ‘Up their own arses’ in other words.

The Fettlers met their match at Wetherby Borstal who had a little black lad in the centre. Looked the part, caught the ball in two hands and didn’t fall over. He’d that languid talent for deception.  Probably why he was there. A show of the ball and his marker was clutching thin air. It should’ve been a cricket score, but his teammates either dropped or kicked it. After the game, three of their team, including the black lad, gave the warders the slip and tried and nick the tea and potted meat sandwiches laid out in the away team’s gym-cum-changing room.

‘Well played,‘ someone said to him. ‘Your useful, who did you play for?’

There was a scuffle outside the door, and mutterings as to what someone would do to someone once they’d been got hold of. The warders were about to catch up with our young felons, but just before they did the black lad replied, ‘Bradford Police Boys.’

‘You’ve some big lads,’ said Dyce, ‘the front row’s not quick but it’s awesome, must be close on fifty stone. Did the full back really play in his glasses?’

‘Yes, he’s blind otherwise, and the scrum half’s had two hip replacements.’

Not much better than the Fettlers, thought Dyce, ‘Who was the guy in the second row with me?’

‘Gary. He’s converted centre half we pinched off the touch line one day when he was watching the soccer team next door.

‘Someone today smacked him in the mouth in a line-out, “Watch it, he says, if you do that again I’ll … ”’

‘That’s Gary. He can’t play for toffee, or fudge or even for humbugs, but he loves the craic.’

‘Soccer players, god love them. They talk too much. You keep quiet and bide your time. I showed him what to do.’

‘Aye, we did notice. Where does Dyce come from?’

‘I am here you know.’

‘Yes, I can see that. Just it’s an unusual name.’

‘Short for Dyson, son of David. From Huddersfield, near you. Dad kept the books at the electricity board.’

‘Rugby League country then.’

‘We’re a league family; dad, brother and grandad as well. We played union at school on Saturday mornings and then went off to play league in the afternoon. I signed for the local league team when we lived near Manchester, before we moved here. So played both, enjoyed both. Now back to union. And you Dave?’

‘Never played before I moved here. Army most of my life, bandsman in the Guards. Followed dad down the pit which he didn’t like. So the army. Best thing I ever did. Travelled the world, tried most things, finished at Catterick and now here.’


‘I shin up telegraph poles and repair wires in the dales.’

He must be twenty stone, thought Dyce, how does he do that? ‘Sounds idyllic.’

What are you doing up here?

During many of those bewitching hours twixt showering and going home, stories about lives and times were swapped, a friendship was created.

In 1982, Dyce and his child bride hauled their two kids up to live near Bedale, in North Yorkshire. He’d taken a hospital post in Northallerton. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wasn’t in it. A huge area, a very small population with towns like Thirsk, Richmond and Leyburn. The county was so big that people living on the edges leaked away to Preston, Darlington, Harrogate and York.

Dyce was a shortened version of Dyson, son of David. From the working class textile belt of West Yorkshire and a boys’ grammar school that produced good enough ‘levels’ to get into a provincial university. Then the rabbit warren of junior jobs, more exams, research papers and a thesis. Where had all that stamina come from? I was well into the young turk by now and after three years in Snape we moved back to the West Riding.  Soon after, Dave and Joan returned to Edinburgh.  But Dave and I had already vowed to meet in the Dales as often as we could.

And just which side of the tracks did he belong? Rugby for instance. His granddad was 21 when the game split in 1895. His team went with The Northern Rugby Union, the beginnings of Rugby League. Dyce’s father and brother were league men. But Dyce played Union. The school did everything except league and employed a sports master who played for the local ‘Old Boys’, a union reincarnation of grandad’s old team.

During the following months and years, Dyce discovered Dave’s instrument, a tuba that was almost as big as him, ensconced in a downstairs toilet.

Changes to rugby now open and even the extra teams play in a league

The hospital has been rebuilt, full of seniora He’d met Joan, a children’s nurse, in Edinburgh.  They married and moved south.  Would it be polite to say that both she and Dave thoroughly enjoyed the good things in life, food coming pretty high on their priority list?  She’ll cook it and he’ll eat it and he’s close on twenty stone.  Imagine him on a sunny day in Coverdale, around lunchtime, sat beside his van at a portable table and chair, a full place-setting with serviette before him, about to start a three course Joan special.  Its a thing of beauty. re related and pretty soon after that, the child bride and Joan are related.   e met Big Dave’s mum and dad in a local hostelry just off the A1. She was a legend for overdoing meat and vegetables, but so was mine. Everyone from the 1950s working classes seemed to brown off their sprouts in a pressure-cooker. He couldn’t smell so it didn’t matter. “What am I supposed to be tasting now?” he kept asking. He was a retired miner with a passion for fishing, and, after Big Dave’s mum died, he tripped over to Ireland so often you’d’ve thought he lived there. Big Dave’s uncomplicated and his grief is pretty stark. When you’ve joined up and travelled the world, just how close are you to your mum and dad, and in his case a sister.

Big Dave and Joan had dogs, and cats, but it’s the dogs that are stay in the memory. A pair of Afghans, long-haired hunting dogs. They all lived in a semi in Northallerton.