‘The Fettlers’, Northallerton RUFC

Dyce was usually first out the showers. It was about maximising drinking time, given he was always amongst the first to leave for home. It was also about those precious moments when stories were swapped and friendships created. He 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, who had beaten him to 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.’

‘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 at all.

‘I’ve not been. What’s it like?’

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

‘Where you from Dave?’

‘Barnsley.’

‘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 long sleak expresses dawdling in the dusk 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. ‘I’m easy, it’s a bit of fun wherever you play. We took 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. We 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? Well everyone’s got a spare something in their bag. He played in the centre and we 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 lover boy scored the winning try. We ran around kissing and hugging each other. Harrogate were stoney-faced.’

‘No one likes to lose a local derby,’ said Dave, ‘especially Harrogate RUFC. Fancy themselves.’

‘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 helped keep 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. Finished at Catterick and now here.’

‘BT?’

‘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.’

From the short time he’d visited and lived there, Dyce knew it might be. Green sparsely wooded valleys, sheep, walls and the occasional village. Even winter had its charm. A porter at work had been on the railways just after the war, ferrying straw and milk and anything else needed by the farmers. A huge snowfall and only the trains could get through. A harsh reality, remembered fondly by many of the locals. An antidote to the pace of city life. No traffic lights, only tractors held you up.

‘How’ve they gone on then?’ Dave asked the barman.

‘Result’s just coming up now.’

A cheer followed the TV announcement of an England win at Twickenham, 17 points to 7. Tries from Carleton and Slemen. Penalties from Hare.

‘I love beating Wales,’ said Dyce, ‘lived down there in the early 70s. Edwards, JJ, JPR, Barry John; you could go on forever. England were crap. If there’d been relegation, we’d’ve been down nearly every year.’

‘They’re good just now,’ said a geordie with Desperate Dan’s chin. Ah, the other prop. As Dave introduced Bill, a farmer, Dyce was quite concerned where his hand had gone and why he’d lost the feeling in it. Bill smiled, ‘It’s because the selectors have finally realised all the best players are from the north.’

‘So how are you settling?’ Bill and Dave waited as Dyce gathered his thoughts.

‘I live in a small village where nothing happens and work the equivalent of three days a week. The neighbours kowtow to the local landlord and my colleagues all speak with plumbs in their mouths. I seem to be arguing with a lot of the family doctors who want me to do things that older patients don’t agree with, like locking them up and throwing away the key. I’m in the throws of looking around for another post.’

The hubub quietened the odd decibel and Dyce could see he’d overdone it a bit.

Dave filled the gap. ‘Ha, do you remember Bill when we dropped down to The Fettlers for the Wetherby Borstal game. The little black lad in the centre. You know, looked the part, caught the ball in two hands and didn’t fall over. A languid talent for deception. Ha, probably why he was there. A show of the ball and his marker clutched thin air. It should’ve been a cricket score, but his teammates either dropped or kicked it. ‘Yes,’ said Bill, ‘And then after the game, three of them, including the black lad, gave the warders the slip and tried to nick the tea and potted meat sandwiches laid out for us in gym where we stripped. Good game, we said, who’d you played for? The warders were on their case though; scuffling and mutterings in the corridor as to what someone would do to someone once they’d been got hold of. The door was just opening as black lad told us Bradford Police Boys. Ha, fancy.’

‘So which village would that be?’ asked Bill. The conversation turned to sheep, cows and hay-making. Safe topics, away from a wife and two small children, somewhat isolated whilst Dyce was at work or playing rugby.

And so it went on. Dyce had done it for years.

 

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