Adrian Besley's Change the Ending story is a touching yet unsentimental celebration of public service.
Bodies crash to the ground, mud flies, legs whirl. Finally a ball fires out of the mess of players, hits the bar and bounces down. At the other end the goalie dances a celebratory jig, while his teammates round on the ref. “Goal! It crossed the line!” All eyes turn to the man in black...
All except Bill’s. His gaze is fixed on the chalky white line that separates elation and disappointment. The line he’d carefully marked out that morning, and every Saturday morning since before those lads were even born.
Some of them thought that was his only job – marking out the lines. They were in double maths when he was mowing, cutting back the hedge, picking up dog muck or clearing out the shinpads and underpants they left behind every week. In a way, though, they were right. Marking the lines had always been the icing on the cake; a neat finish to the week.
The ref stands still, replaying the incident in his head. Bill still stares at the line. It was, as he’d proudly told his mates in the pub the night before, “the end of the line” for him – 39 years, 640 yards, six pots of chalky paint, every week.
Some of the kids he’d seen play had grandchildren out there now. Of course, they’d never been any good. Down the years a couple had had trials for local clubs. One had become a chess grandmaster though! But this lot, finally, had something. Hang on to a draw here and they’d win the league.
The council had given him a good send off – nice sandwiches and a lovely speech – but he couldn’t wait to get back to his pitch. He’d checked every blade of grass for this one and pushed his line machine with steady purpose.
The ref lifts his head, demanding respect. “No goal,” he announces. “I saw it clearly. Never crossed the line.”
“Of course it bloody didn’t – not my line, not today,” mutters Bill, as he treads down a divot.
Adrian Besley writes sports and humour books, and believes the public sector should be defended. He lives in North London.